Sunday 30 March 2014


(#294: 4 February 1984, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Here Comes The Rain Again/Regrets/Right By Your Side/Cool Blue/Who’s That Girl?/The First Cut/Aqua/No Fear, No Hate, No Pain (No Broken Hearts)/Paint A Rumour

“I believe you only experience love with strangers, so it doesn’t last long. You’re usually just in love with the idea of somebody. Many of my own love affairs were projecting my own ideas onto others. Like the relationship between the junkie and the drug, what destroys the person is what they crave most.”
(Annie Lennox, October 1983)

The idea of the mask came from Blade Runner, or possibly an article she read about Blade Runner in The FACE, but it was enough to send out its own signals. There was a woman, and there was a man, and the woman is on the cover, in the centre of pure white light, raising her fists as if to make both embrace, her right eye looking warily at the camera; am I being brave enough? Can you believe me? And there was a man, not on the cover but on the inside, dressed in black before a background of grey, looking full on at the camera, and looking slightly fearful. Were it not for the beard you could believe he was Bowie.

So there are these two separate people, working together but being strictly professional about it, and yet you would know by just looking at them, without knowing anything about their history, that once they had something going. But neither seems particularly comfortable about being in close proximity to the other, even if they are not, as such, together. Nor are they really together in their music, other than the woman’s voice is the clear centre around which all of the man’s music revolves, or orbits. There are periodic encounters with the elements on their songs; the rain, the sun (“No Fear, No Hate, No Pain”), water (“Aqua”) – the woman could almost be singing from the centre of the world, preventing the rest of it from falling apart. The music swirls and circumnavigates around her.

But this is their third record together, these Eurythmics, and the mutual discomfort is starting to become a little jarring. The title itself – Touch – could be deadly ironic, given that one of its songs (“Aqua”) repeatedly warns “Don’t touch me.” Nothing on the record is settled or welcoming. Even its most outwardly jolly song, “Right By Your Side,” is performed as though it were an extended exercise in self-denial; she craves love, protection and warmth, extols the ability of love to solve all pain and uncertainty, but she overplays the song – her performance is a little too happy, like Julie Andrews as your geography teacher doing the Twist to Einstürzende Neubauten; so exuberant that it becomes restless. You wonder how much she really believes what she is celebrating.

For much of the rest of the record, Lennox’s voice – and there is less of her voice on Touch than you might imagine – carries a hardness, even at times a severity, which creates an immediate emotional barrier, as though erecting its own “TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED” signs. Even when it is superficially softer – “Here Comes The Rain Again,” “Regrets,” wherein she sings of her fist colliding against “your furniture” – it continues to act as a veiled threat. This in itself does not make Lennox a great singer; too often on “Who’s That Girl?” and elsewhere, she seems slightly scared of silence, so must fill the space with worn pub-soul tropes – which is a shame since “Who’s That Girl?” is otherwise a finely tuned performance, her restrained exasperation only coming to the boil at key rhetorical moments (“But there’s JUST ONE THING!”).

Otherwise, “Who’s That Girl?”, with its Gartside-like hanging on the question of “the language of love” and the paradoxes that it is likely to create in reality – who, in truth, would desire anything “cooler than ice cream” or “warmer than the Sun” or both? It is the old (by early 1984 standards) New Pop theme of “love” being different from, and perhaps more desirable than, love as a real and existing thing, since Lennox seems doomed to be eternally disappointed by the latter. On “Here Comes The Rain Again,” where she is palpably unhappy, she even encourages her lover to use the language of love –  “Talk to me like lovers do,” “I want to kiss like lovers do” – with, again, the elements, the “open wind,” the metaphorical “ocean” – while speaking, or singing, of the way things are as being “like a tragedy/Tearing me apart, like a new emotion” (and this imagery is echoed in “No Fear, No Hate, No Pain”: “And when the sun comes up/It’s like a new commotion”).

Hence “Regrets,” if it’s not about Thatcher, which it might be (“I’m an electric wire/And I’m stuck inside your head”), it is about somebody protecting herself against hurt and harm, to the point of hurting and harming anybody who approaches her, and this could apply to Lennox in terms of protecting her image against the world; in the FACE interview I quoted at the top of this piece, Lennox goes on to mention that: “I went to a Music Therapy luncheon last year, the kind of ‘do’ where they invite record business bosses and if you’re very unlucky you’ll sit next to a Radio One producer like I did and have him fondle your knee all through the main course.” Who wouldn’t want to defend themselves against this kind of world? “I’ve got a delicate mind,” she hisses, “I’ve got a dangerous nature.” Likewise, the lyric of “Cool Blue” could exist on the same level of allegory as Fine Young Cannibals’ “Blue” (“Blue again, it’s a lasting chill/To keep you cold as winter”), though could also, of course, refer to death; the ruminative vocal is broken up by mock-exasperated cries of “How could she fall for a boy like that?”

Whereas “Aqua,” which Lennox has said is about a junkie (“I saw you put the needle in”), could almost be a cold rationalist sequel to the Shangri-Las’ “Past, Present And Future” – “Don’t touch me/Don’t talk to me EVER AGAIN” – except that this protagonist will slowly sink under the metaphorical water of oblivion. “No Fear, No Hate, No Pain” could be set in the protagonist’s afterlife – Lennox’s voice now reduced, in the choruses, to Fairlight siren triggers, while in the verses she sings of sex and death as though they were the same thing. “The First Cut” could be a prequel to all of this, with its references to “the cold, cold ground,” while “Paint A Rumour” is a most disquieting album closer, Lennox repeatedly whispering “I could tell you something” without ever telling us what it is, other than stray lyrical sparks which may or may not have a political undertow (“See the place go red,” “Promise not to sell”).

Much of the record concerns itself with its singer not really wanting to be “here,” and one has to ask what, or who, has caused this willingness to be absent. Musically, Touch is less straightforward than its singles might suggest; it is as if the wary pop of Sweet Dreams is now being made to cohabit with the experimentation of In The Garden. “Rain” and “Girl” proceed like a more measured Depeche Mode, while the opening onomatopoeic synthesiser line of “Rain” itself helped pave the way to Acid House, as it will later recur as one of two underlying cyclical figures in Frankie Knuckles’ “Your Love.” Michael Kamen’s strings are present on “Rain” and “No Fear, No Hate” but are unobtrusive enough to make the listener forget that they are there.

“Regrets” is terrific counterfeit Grace Jones, with some unhinged cornet work from Dick Cuthell at its fadeout (Cuthell was also a regular associate member of the Specials/Special AKA, and I wonder whether Rhoda Dakar’s 1982 collaboration “The Boiler” was on anyone’s mind at the time of recording this album – Cuthell’s playing is nearly as troubled on the latter, which is too upsetting a record to be listened to more than once, but must be listened to once – for repeat playing, there is an instrumental B-side) and indeed points the way to two groups of future importance who both benefited from Dave Stewart’s patronage. One is Underworld – their anxious yet patient techno paradigm is also very evident on “The First Cut” and especially the long “Paint A Rumour” (which latter also presages Belgian New Beat) – and the other is Curve, which is hardly surprising since half of that duo, Dean Garcia, plays bass throughout Touch, and is especially prominent and creative on “Cool Blue.”

“No Fear, No Hate, No Pain,” on the other hand, musically sounds like the end of everything, more The Final Cut than “The First Cut,” slow and declining and circular. And so one can usefully listen to Touch and trace a line of influence which would eventually lead us to Goldfrapp, and to a lesser extent Portishead, and perhaps even Sinéad O’Connor and Polly Harvey, both of whom would have been young enough in the early eighties to take Annie Lennox’s pain to their hearts. But that is the final problem with the record; here we have this woman, and this man, and once they were, and now they are, but what they are isn’t what they once were, so love can never be readmitted, but there is so much protectionism and abstraction busily at work that it’s hard to detect a heart.

Thursday 27 March 2014

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Now That's What I Call Music

(#293: 17 December 1983, 4 weeks; 21 January 1984, 1 week)

Track listing: You Can’t Hurry Love (Phil Collins)/Is There Something I Should Know (Duran Duran)/Red, Red Wine (UB40)/Only For Love (Limahl)/Temptation (Heaven 17)/Give It Up (KC & The Sunshine Band)/Double Dutch (Malcolm McLaren)/Total Eclipse Of The Heart (Bonnie Tyler)/Karma Chameleon (Culture Club)/The Safety Dance (Men Without Hats)/Too Shy (Kajagoogoo)/Moonlight Shadow (Mike Oldfield)/Down Under (Men At Work)/Hey You (The Rock Steady Crew) (Rock Steady Crew)/Baby Jane (Rod Stewart)/Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home) (Paul Young)/Candy Girl (New Edition)/Big Apple (Kajagoogoo)/Let’s Stay Together (Tina Turner)/(Keep Feeling) Fascination (Human League)/New Song (Howard Jones)/Please Don’t Make Me Cry (UB40)/Tonight I Celebrate My Love (Peabo Bryson & Roberta Flack)/They Don’t Know (Tracey Ullman)/Kissing With Confidence (Will Powers)/That’s All (Genesis)/The Love Cats (The Cure)/Waterfront (Simple Minds)/The Sun And The Rain (Madness)/Victims (Culture Club)

Looking at the track listing for the forthcoming Now 87, I note with some dismay that all of the hitherto unknown songs included have entered yesterday’s midweek singles chart. This is not a new phenomenon with Now compilations and its continuation indeed supplants my dismay with disquiet. It is as if the charts have been meticulously plotted so that all of the untried and untested singles will debut at precisely the right moment and hence make next week’s compilation look fresher than fresh. It is as if pop music has been planned to death.

Listening to the first Now volume of all, I also note that we have not really completed the circle begun by Raiders Of The Pop Charts. Instead of finishing where 1983 started, with a thirty-track, TV-advertised double compilation album, it is quite apparent that we have ended up somewhere entirely different; somewhere not quite so shambolically comfortable, and somewhere a lot more disturbing and possibly fatal.

Is that last sentence an overstatement? The overall priority of the Starship Enterprise, you may remember, was to observe history rather than try to change or influence history. With the many TV-advertised compilations featured in this tale between 1972 and 1983, the overall picture is one of a slightly inchoate assemblage of cottage industries and an agreeably sloppy attitude to compiling these collections; it really was a case of working with what you could lease from whatever record companies would be prepared to lease to you, finding unexpected connections and more than occasionally throwing a very welcome curveball. Ronco, K-Tel and Arcade compilations – not to mention things like Don’t Walk – Boogie (a true ancestor of the Now series) - were, broadly speaking, a mess, occasionally a hugely irritating mess, but generally a rather surprisingly fertile one.

My suspicion is, however, that with the dawning of the Now franchise, we witness the beginning of a direct attempt to influence the course of pop music, and maybe even how pop music is made or consumed. The first volume was advertised with a painstakingly irreverent voiceover by one of its featured artists, Tracey Ullman; the subtext was that this was not bargain basement, available at Woolworths and Rumbelows K-Tel time.

The overall aim – or one of them – seems to have been to put the house of the compilation album in order. Although essentially a joint venture between EMI and Virgin, it was Virgin Records who came up with the initial idea (and negotiations for the concept involved Richard Branson himself). The album was advertised by a curious logo; a beaming pig listening over a garden fence to a chicken singing, and proclaiming “Now that’s what I call music!” In fact this was originally a 1920s advertisement for Danish bacon, but Branson bought a poster of it as a present for Virgin Records’ then managing director (and Branson’s cousin): “He was notoriously grumpy before breakfast and loved his eggs in the morning,” observed Branson, “so I bought him the poster, framed it and had it hung behind his desk!"

Following negotiations, Virgin managed to persuade EMI to come on board with the venture – this was the first time major labels had collaborated on such a large project. Some hits were then leased from CBS, WEA, Polydor, Island and Stiff, but none from Arista, RCA, MCA, Chrysalis, A&M or Phonogram. There was still quite a lot of scepticism as to whether the Now project would work, and some unrest about whether, if popular, the album would hinder the sales of artists’ own albums – one may view the delayed entrance of several major acts on Now II as having waited for the waters to be tested before becoming involved.

But the first Now album was an immediate success; it sold 900,000 copies over the Christmas/New Year period and more or less rendered the TV-dependent labels redundant overnight. Packaged immaculately – some might say suffocatingly – Now 1 seemed to promise proper quality; no sloppy covers pasted together in five minutes, no filler, full, unedited 45 versions. It appeared to legitimise the enterprise of multi-artist compilations, push them into growing up.

And yet listening to it is such a cold, deadening experience. Overwhelmingly, despite the presence of eleven of the eighteen singles to make number one during 1983, it is far too safe a selection of hits, and the absentees imply that we are dealing with the second tier of pop stars, or possibly tier 1a. For the record, neither 1983’s first number one nor its last is included. The first was a hangover from 1982, “Save Your Love” by Renée and Renato, a calamitous confirmation of what happens when camp is taken too seriously, or not seriously enough (it is the missing link between “Welcome Home” and “Barcelona”), and it says something about the nascent Now brand that this would have seemed out of place on any Now album (though would have fitted without complaint onto any K-Tel or Ronco record). The last – another unanticipated novelty – was released too late for inclusion (and wrongfooted certain grave assumptions about Now 1) and appears on Now II. Of the remaining five missing chart-toppers, “Billie Jean,” “Let’s Dance,” “True” and “Every Breath You Take” have already been written about in the context of their parent albums (and their absence here implies that they are just too big to go on Now, since Bowie was, at the time, an EMI act). This means that the one remaining absent number one, Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl,” will simply not be written about here directly. That, I am sure you will agree, is a tragedy beyond comprehension.

But how can you have a 1983 greatest hits album without “Blue Monday” or anything by Michael Jackson? How much better would any of the C90 cassettes you and I would have filled with our versions of 1983 music have been? And why so safe a track listing – get past Simple Minds, plus atypical songs by Genesis and The Cure, and there is no rock as such – Big Country, U2, Echo and the Bunnymen, even EMI recording artists Iron Maiden – all for the boys, all absent. In fact the record seems to have been scrupulously assembled so as not to frighten or disturb, or even momentarily stir, anyone who buys it or listens to it; “This Is Not A Love Song” by Public Image Ltd, released on Virgin and beyond dispute one of 1983’s greatest singles, was a much bigger hit than many of the songs included here, but you will search for it on this record in vain.

Actually the TV-advertised labels were not quite down the dumper; the late 1983 charts also included three BOGOF compilations; The Hit Squad (Chart-Tracking & Nightclubbing) (Ronco), Superchart ’83 (Telstar) and, a revisit from 1981, Chart Hits ’83 (K-Tel). There is necessarily some overlap between this trio, but they do provide a fuller and less predictable picture of the year’s hit music; if you’re looking at the Now 1 track listing and wondering where such and such a song is, odds are that they are on at least one of these three. But it was a losing battle; in the following year, 1984, Ronco filed for bankruptcy.

In other words, Now 1 was the future. But what kind of future was it trying to create? Remember what I said about the series trying to influence history. At the time of this record’s release, several of its tracks were climbing the chart as singles, and it’s possible that the surprising underperformance of hits like “Waterfront” (peak position #13; not remotely indicative of the song’s true popularity) and “That’s All” (#16) is directly ascribable to their inclusion here. But the record’s attempted coup de theatre was to conclude with “Victims”; the assumption being that, having begun with the year’s first “new” number one, the record would close with the final one. It didn’t work, partly because of Now 1 itself and partly because Colour By Numbers was still a hugely popular, big-selling album, but also in part because, as a single, “Victims” was too complex and involving a song to cross over as effortlessly as the knowing bubblegum of “Karma Chameleon”; there are no real hooks, no easy emotional compromise. It is just too disturbing for that (it peaked in third place in the Christmas singles chart).

And, if pop can sometimes, at its best, prove really disturbing, I also have to say that I cannot imagine a similar enterprise being undertaken even twelve months previously. Leasing problems notwithstanding, what would a Now That’s What I Call 1982 have looked like (and before any smart alecks come on board to point it out, I am fully aware that ten year-specific Now Eighties collections were released many years later, and no, I don’t think the 1982 album would have looked like that at the time)? My feeling is that the pop of 1982 was overall too radical, too disturbing, to act as a comfort blanket for casual supermarket consumers, and that in itself may tell us how things had perhaps lowered slightly in terms of the horizons of the following year’s pop. Did the pig really represent the lazy, sated consumer fully prepared to pay money to buy a new packaging of what was already available; indeed, when some of its content was still new? Or did the pig represent the bloated, indulgent music industry who’d be perfectly happy to sell the public records of a chicken clucking if they took off?

Phil Collins/Genesis

An early indicator of how readily "adventurous" musicians from the seventies were prepared to dress up and dumb down for the unforgiven eighties. The song's imperious beat and encouraging catchy tune, as demonstrated in the Supremes' 1966 top three original, hide a near-suicidal lyric: "But how many heartaches must I stand/Before I find a love to let me live again?" These are words crying out for Orbison at his most tormented, yet Diana Ross at her perkiest is strangely but equally convincing at conveying the song's underlying desperation.

Collins' cover, which in itself is faithfully facsimilied in the mode of a reproduction antique – his vocals aside, the recording might as well have been taken from one of those Hot Hits make-do-and-mend albums - was the only substantial hit single from his second solo album, Hello, I Must Be Going!, by some distance the weakest-selling of his '80s tetralogy, full of interchangeable whining ballads about his first divorce. They do not include songs entitled “You Can’t Take My TV” or “Why I Pay You To Go Out With Fancyman (Why I Not Break His Jaw)?,” despite what the eximious Comstock Carabinieri claimed, but it’s a close call. It's also telling that virtually all of his cover versions come from an idealised 1966 - "Tomorrow Never Knows" on Face Value, "A Groovy Kind Of Love" from Buster - but unfortunately whatever minor merit his "You Can't Hurry Love" might have possessed is utterly nullified by its rather creepy video featuring multiple besuited Collinses, unflatteringly filmed on VT, performing a Blues Brothers tribute, as if the song were just a piece of laughable fluff from his schoolboy years to be sent up. As for “That’s All,” The Cure do a better Beatles on “The Love Cats.”

Duran Duran

PLEASE PLEASE TELL ME NOW!” they demand, in the manner of anxiously psychotic hostage takers. The “Look Of Love”-derived intro heralded an attempt at adding a harder, tougher edge to Duran Duran’s pop – le Bon’s “I KNOW you’re watching me” and “DON’T SAY you’re easy on me” warned listeners that he really was not to be messed around with (actually he sounds not a million miles away from that other renegade Brumrocker Ozzy Osbourne). Hence when le Bon tells of “jungle drums” we receive booming “Poison Arrow” echoes of drum. It’s pretty clear that this is a transitional record and also why it didn’t get included on Seven And The Ragged Tiger; musically the most interesting ingredient is John Taylor’s bass (particularly in the fadeout, under le Bon’s “Every time it passes by”), and while producer Alex Sadkin is always aware of the value of space and silence, and a harmonica strays in from an old career in an old town during the instrumental break (are we really as big as the Beatles?), this is a relatively disappointing piece of work; the ingredients to enable development of their music are all present, but are, at this point, still only perhaps three-quarters baked.

UB40/Bonnie Tyler/Paul Young

One central problem with the Now series, apart from making great pop sound dull, is that sometimes 45 edits are no longer enough. Some songs are now benefiting from their full album length, such that any single edit is like looking at just one corner of a painting rather than the whole thing; otherwise they run the danger of sounding emotionally constipated. The edit of “Total Eclipse” here is (pace what I said above) different from the edit on the original 45 and still unsatisfactory. Then again, “Please Don’t Make Me Cry” is unedited, if a wholly unnecessary inclusion. A very long way indeed from “So Here I Am.”

But those sleigh bells on “Total Eclipse.” One is never too far away from the Beach Boys, or indeed from Dennis Wilson, who slipped into the blue Pacific Ocean, never to resurface, on 28 December 1983.

As regards Paul Young’s “Wherever I Lay My Hat,” see also Scott Walker’s “Orpheus” from 1966.


“Johnnie Ray!” exclaimed Lena as we endured “Only For Love” (“And! Ew-YOU! RrrrrrRECOGNISE!”). Or perhaps a glossier variant on Chris Andrews, whose “Yesterday Man” was re-covered by Robert Wyatt on a very different Virgin Records compilation album in 1975. But one of the major failings of Now 1 is the inclusion of three songs by Kajagoogoo and/or Limahl. Some might say that was five more than was absolutely necessary.

Kajagoogoo were EMI's "priority new act" for 1983. They achieved some useful publicity touring as support to Duran Duran, and Nick Rhodes even co-produced their first single. Their profile was heightened further by an appearance on the Channel 4 series The Other Side Of The Tracks, presented by an expatriate American broadcaster who is currently under a legal cloud, and who was then the partner of lead singer Limahl - just before the Christmas of 1982.

Everything about "Too Shy" betrays the slide rule. It is a ghastly melange of absolute misunderstanding of New Pop; as if the swooning entrance of the keyboards allied to a burbling, harmonically ambiguous bassline could in itself conjure up Level 42, or Japan. When Limahl enters for the first verse, it becomes worse; a tortuous Lexicon Of Love parody ("Try a little harder" with sub-sub-sub-Anne Dudley piano) swiftly followed by dangling Tin Drum/New Gold Dream angles of warbling synth over which Limahl coos "Move a little closer" in the manner of Cheggers Plays Pop host Keith Chegwin, before we reach the chorus which fully reveals Kajagoogoo as the dull, Jamiroquai-presaging jazz-funk drones they secretly always wanted to be - and when Limahl huffily walked out, or was pushed (depending on whom you ask), some six months later, they indulged their sub-Shakatak fantasies freely (“Big Apple,” which set new standards in flaccidity, both musically and lyrically, is perhaps the worst song about New York ever written, from the perspective of people who sound as though they had travelled no further west than Hounslow). The song seems to be about sexual timidity, but faced with Limahl, one is scarcely surprised by his Other's reluctance to "dilate." "Too Shy," however, dilates New Pop to the point of nullity.

There was an album – White Feathers, which peaked at #5 at the end of April, and which, despite including songs entitled “Ergonomics” and “This Car Is Fast” – and two other hit singles that are rather more disturbing than “Too Shy” (“Ooh To Be Ah” might still be one of the most abstract things ever to make our top ten; play against, say, Gabi Delgado’s “History Of A Kiss” and see the connections, while “Hang On Now” is a downbeat ballad sung as though its singer were hanging onto the edge of the world with a turquoise fingernail) – is ultimately no more than placid jazz-funk, even if in Icelandic terms it might be a missing link between Mezzoforte and Björk. I mean, “Magician Man.” Whereas Limahl’s first solo effort (which peaked at an unsurprisingly low #16) is not even interestingly random, like a Dadaist jigsaw puzzle, but merely a ghastly cut-and-paste of 1983 pop elements, none of which fits with each other. As well as equally ghastly and obligatory soulful, passionate and honest backing singers. Honest about what?

Heaven 17/Human League/Tina Turner

From the first second of “Temptation,” you are never in doubt that, unlike Limahl, Heaven 17 know how to structure a great pop record, and they also know that without conflict and pain, there really wouldn’t be much pop music, of any stripe, left. If “Let Me Go” had given notice that the dream wasn’t working, or even coming true, then The Luxury Gap from its cover inwards set about demolishing illusion. The knowledge that it’s all bullshit, that you can travel the world, go crazy with plastic and before day is done you still have to get back, get home, to desolate, semi-derelict Sheffield – such things power the polite screams of “Key To The World “(“I’m Mister Obsolete – DELETE!,” complete with the ironically opulent Earth, Wind and Fire horn section) or “Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry,” or the quietened tragedies of “Come Live With Me” (the song Rod Stewart never sang, but should have done) or the closing “The Best Kept Secret” which sees Glenn Gregory staring out onto an ocean of nothingness which will evidently take forever to fade.

“Temptation” is angry, righteous, arranged with maximal ingenuity by BEF and sometime AMM accomplice John Barker, with a continued, upward, creeping angle of progress between topline chords and underscore rhythm which anticipates what Calvin Harris would do on 18 Months. It is sinister yet ultimately liberating, thanks to the explosive co-lead vocal of NYJO graduate Carol Kenyon.

Both Heaven 17 and the Human League peaked at #2 behind “True” in consecutive weeks; Top Of The Pops proved a challenge. But “Fascination,” Melody Maker’s single of the year for 1983, was the last thing that Phil Oakey’s League did with Martin Rushent, and overall – although there was no telling at the time – the record (still credited to “Human League Red”) serves as a fond farewell to the association, with everybody in the group taking a vocal turn, and Jo Callis’ wobbly guitar-processed-via-synth riff sounds like the missing link between “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Only Shallow.” Meanwhile, Oakey’s deep “hey, hey, hey, HEY” is reminiscent of Larry Graham with Sly and the Family Stone.

But then there is Tina Turner, returned like the grown-up co-protagonist of “Temptation,” and these days she had seen, and how they bled their way slowly into how she sang “Let’s Stay Together” – is my memory fallible, or was the original single credited to “B.E.F. Presents Tina Turner” (it might have been “Ball Of Confusion” from 1982)? In any event, it was the Heaven 17 fanbase who got it into the Top 40, but then perhaps an older demographic helped elevate it into the Top Ten; absent from the charts for a decade, and perhaps from the world from as nearly as long a time, here she was; alive, and in pain, and euphoric, the B.E.F. voices gently ushering her into centre stage, and for once the old times were justified.

KC & The Sunshine Band

Lena commented that “Give It Up” might well have been the “Get Lucky” of its age and I would agree with this. Long, hot summer – no, Weller’s nowhere to be seen here – and a number one song inhabiting that nice middle place where everything just works. Also “Give It Up” was the year’s only number one single without an accompanying video (N.B.: there was a VHS companion to this album which included the otherwise Now-avoiding “I.O.U.” by Freeez and “Never Never” by the Assembly).

The record was an unexpected and brief but highly welcome resurgence of the Miami Sound. Only its discreet synth marks out “Give It Up” as having been recorded in 1982 rather than 1974, and that’s no bad thing. While “That’s The Way (I Like It)” remains KC’s best record because of its underlying sense of approaching menace, “Give It Up” is busily arranged but basically straightforward three-chord bubblegum disco with a terrific good humour which is admirably happy to remain as such. An anachronism in the land of “Just Be Good To Me” and “Hey You (The Rock Steady Crew),” perhaps, but a contented one.

Malcolm McLaren

Worthiness is not the same thing as worth. To seize a music, take it to pieces, expose it to its aesthetic polar opposite and thereby (hopefully) refresh it is not a task to which the adjective "worthy" should be applied. There are places for reverence and respect as long as you don't let them block your future. I could spend the rest of my life revering Spencer's Resurrection at Cookham but simultaneously realise and adore the pelvis-driven imaginings which give that masterpiece its multiple puncta.

As with World Music. If music is truly to be of the world then it must by definition be exposed to "impure" things, it must be acknowledged that the music itself is probably "impure" to begin with. It cannot be adopted or handled with dainty fingers, nervously examining their adrenalin reserves to ensure that they contain adequate nullifying agents of respect. Otherwise any World Music is all middle-distance, respectful, designed never to derange. More of a lead should have been taken from Malcolm McLaren and Trevor Horn.

It is deliberate that, with the Duck Rock project, McLaren set out to combat and nullify what he viewed to be the sterile blandness of New Pop. And how better to attack than to employ its chief architect, Trevor Horn, to arrange and produce? McLaren said he wanted Horn to obtain some "bollocks" in his work, get "a bit of the rough, the spontaneous" into his meticulous productions. It is therefore doubly ironic that Duck Rock is one of the most seamlessly, microscopically put-together things which Horn ever did.

How did they approach this? It was McLaren's ceaseless strivings for a new punk, and his moderately keen ear for developments. He was in America while hip-hop and electro went overground with Flash and Bambaataa, witnessed with amazement kids breakdancing to a modified "Trans-Europe Express," scratching up records like John Cage with a good drummer (a disciple of Karel Appel's COBRA group/philosophy as well as of Debord, McLaren instinctively knew how to insert the art into this sort of thing). His ears wandered vaguely in the direction of Africa, specifically in view of Bambaataa's Zulu Nation and any connections which McLaren could discern (Nigeria's King Sunny Ade and Senegal's Youssou N'Dour had yet to break overground, though the former's Synchro System was, usefully, a minor UK hit at around the time of Duck Rock's release, while the fatally less mischievous Laswell got to N'Dour first). His wits further led him to discern a vague (probably imagined) link between the square dances of the white South and the hip hop culture of the black North - apart from their both being ritual occasions to allow participants to somehow become more "themselves" - the same idea which, of course, prompted Punk into existence. How to marry all of this up?

McLaren and Horn did some field trips to NYC, Tennessee and the South African townships, made some recordings and then returned to London to knock them into shape with what was eventually to become the Art of Noise (indeed, the latter's epoch-beginning Into Battle EP largely originated from Duck Rock outtakes) with some help from Thomas Dolby. Significantly, from NYC, they employed the DJ duo The World's Famous Supreme Team to act as a kind of Greek chorus for the album, turning it into one of their then legendary late night/early morning radio shows.

It's hard to visualise just how radical the first single from the album "Buffalo Gals" seemed when it came right at the death of 1982, right when certain careerist ambulance chasers seemed determined to strip New Pop of all its mischief and sensuality. And how appropriate that both McLaren and Horn should signify a way out. Radio One played it; and their DJs sounded completely baffled but, to their credit, they knew that this was something new and correctly predicted that it would be a gigantic hit. True, to those long familiar with things like Grandmaster Flash's "Adventures on the Wheels of Steel" (which just missed the UK Top 75 about a year previously), this was not exactly something unprecedented, although one could argue that what McLaren and Horn did with it was unprecedented. Certainly square dance cut-ups were not yet on the Zululand template, although downtown Double Dee and Steinski were simultaneously busy preparing their likewise groundbreaking "Lessons." For the other big hit off the album, "Double Dutch," McLaren reversed the template, getting Zulu singers to exalt the praises of NYC skipping contests.

The album itself remains eminently playable. Though the Supreme Team's patter is now a stock template for Radio 1/Kiss DJs, it sounded fresh and spontaneous at the time, sounded like an injection of (s)punk into the barrenness in which post-New Pop pop had marooned itself. And McLaren let no stones lie in his "world tour." From the near-holy murmurings of the introduction "Obatala" effortlessly into the welcoming Supreme Team ("leave your guns at home! Tell me Shirl, how do you manage to stay up until four o'clock in the morning to listen to our show??!?") and the killer opening sequence of "Buffalo Gals," "Double Dutch" and "Merengue," this is a grin-inducing record. On the latter, six clear years before the Lambada came to public prominence, McLaren gleefully romps through the salsa-meets-kwela-meets-Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra like a postmodern Bruce Forsyth, excitedly intoning lines like "nice little cemetarios will be waiting for you!" Even the fact that McLaren's delivery (especially on "Double Dutch") recalls no one so much as the late Harry Corbett of Sooty the Bear fame somehow lends even more humanity and mischief to this record.

And what about "Punk It Up"? In his sleevenotes, McLaren recalls the glee and enthusiasm with which the Zulus entertained his stories about the Sex Pistols, and how enlivening and joyous it is to hear the Zulus singing, "I'm a Sex Pistol man" to top-notch Afrobeat. This seeming disrespect for "other musics" (sics) actually betrays a greater and deeper respect for them than mere Xeroxing and blanding out. The whole thing continues in similar (if slightly more contemplative and ritualistic) mood on side two before bowing out with "Duck For The Oyster," a straightfaced square dance for fiddles and scratch DJs where McLaren manfully fuses both mutually hating though ultimately alike extremes together. Note the parting cry of "Promenade you know where/AND I DON'T CARE" where he performs the final bonding ceremony with Punk and thereby regenerates it.

A shame that no room could be found on the CD for perhaps McLaren and the Supreme Team's greatest moment, "D'Ya Like Scratchin'?" (the B-side of the 12-inch of "Soweto") where the Team's especially demented scratching interacts with proto-Art of Noise beats to almost hysterical levels until McLaren strides in with a straight hoedown version of "Red River Valley" (cf. Scooter's "Fuck the Millennium" to see how this spirit remains propagated even into the present century). But this is a joyous record which superficially doesn't give a fuck but deep down its fuck is much more sincerely given than any "worthy" or "respectful" people I could mention could really offer. Liz Phair quoted “Double Dutch” in her song “Whip-Smart,” while Paul Simon, with whose “The Late Great Johnny Ace” we could close down 1983, was sufficiently intrigued by the record to begin a controversial adventure of his own.

Culture Club/Men At Work

Say something once, why say it again?

Men Without Hats

A classic example of an act wrongfooting its audience with its videos – although the medieval undertow of “The Safety Dance” was really always evident. They were from Montreal, they came, they impacted and they went back into the rest of the world.

Mike Oldfield

A decade after Tubular Bells set the whole thing going, was it deliberate, or a nice accident, that Virgin’s original star should reappear on this record? On TOTP he looked ecstatic, clean-shaven and grinning, perhaps relieved at no longer having to share a chart with Paul Nicholas or David Soul, accompanying Maggie Reilly, erstwhile singer with Glasgow white soul band Cado Belle, with guitars which at times border on the hysterical. All in keeping with a song whose subject matter is the assassination of John Lennon, that other 1980 ghost whom New Pop can’t quite forget.

The Rock Steady Crew

“DIGITAL” beeped the voice, repeatedly, and top B-boy producer Stephen Hague, presumably with Duck Rock on his mind, set about recording this fantastic piece of avant-bubblegum (although it is really “Hang On Sloopy” plus “Looking For The Perfect Beat”). Like “I Can See For Miles,” there is continued build-up (the live turntable scratching = Keith Moon’s cymbals) but no climax or release. Pop, this is your smiling future. At least until you see the video and watch with an increasing rictus grin as the second half turns into a display of American military weaponry. World, this must not be your unsmiling future. But the song was sampled by De La Soul (on “Cool Breeze On The Rocks”) and the nod to Numan at fadeout suggests that somebody else will have the last laugh.

Rod Stewart

All this new-looking design; all these old-looking names. If someone had time-travelled from 1976 to 1983 they’d still recognise Genesis, Mike Oldfield, Tina Turner, Roberta Flack, Bonnie Tyler, KC & The Sunshine Band. If they were really hip they’d remember that Malcolm McLaren was the Pistols’ manager.

And of course Rod, always bloody Rod, haven’t seen you since the seventies Rod. "The situation ain't all that new," croaks Rod, and indeed it isn't; the brought-you-up-from-nothing plot is borrowed from "Don't You Want Me?," the rhythm from Eddy Grant and the resignedly exasperated tone from "Maggie May." A dozen years on from the latter and now it's Rod's turn to tell his ungrateful paramour to sling her hook, though the line "I've said goodbye so many times" indicates that the problem is not one of the semi-hapless Jane's making.

Soaring to number one on the back of a bizarre WEA promotional campaign which included a free beach ball with every copy of the single - oddly this offer was only available at chart return shops - "Baby Jane" is Rod's sixth, and to date last, number one single, and it is the most airless. Revisiting this most purposely forlorn of 1983 hit singles, the overwhelming sensation is one of nullification; despite the presence of Tom Dowd as co-producer (with Rod), this is yet another "big" and seamless production, treble-heavy and metronomically precise, such that no art can hope to breathe or thrive within its consumer-flattering/suffocating bubble-packed surface. However, the bluff "When I Fall In Love" citation does provide an early indication of Rod's eventual (though not permanent) mutation into a hoarse-faced granny-pleasing MoR crooner. Cheryl Cole’s birth song; it’s enough to make me feel sorry for her.

New Edition

The pre-eminent pop producer in 1983 was not Trevor Horn - at least, not the pre-ZTT Horn - but the team of Arthur Baker and John Robie. In striking contrast to the maximalism of ABC and Dollar records, and with a keener ear to the urban ground, Baker and Robie stripped their productions of anything approaching lushness in favour of skittish, deeper beats with a staccato rather than ambulatory perspective applied. There is evidence that the noticeably tougher Horn who emerged with things like Duck Rock, Art of Noise and "Owner Of A Lonely Heart" from mid-1983 onwards was provoked into substantial rethought after experiencing the impact of Baker and Robie's steely futurism. Bambaataa's immensely important "Looking For The Perfect Beat" was the first single to feature digital rather than manual sampling. Records like Freeez's "I.O.U." and Robie's astonishing double whammy of C-Bank's "One More Shot" and Jenny Burton's "Remember What You Like" are beyond-Futurist cut-ups of notions of "song" and "voice"; it is a wonder how, on the latter two singles, Burton manages to retain her elegance and grace while being assaulted from all sides by smashing glass, gunfire, car horns and Corbusier-proportioned beats. And of course there was "Blue Monday," the point where all pop music meets, simultaneously the beginning, suspension and end of time, the supreme seven-and-a-half minute denial of 1983's ruination (because the song is about a ruination) and a record whose importance casts a yellowing shadow on the subsequent quarter-century of pop, a record so vital yet accidental that Baker left his name off the label credits but later owned up to having produced it (Robie is credited with the mix).

But there were also minor ambitions to do a Motown; see the Andromeda Strain Four Tops of Planet Patrol's "Play At Your Own Risk" and "Cheap Thrills" (although Planet Patrol’s eponymous album remains a marvel), and most clearly and depressingly evident in "Candy Girl," strictly speaking a Maurice Starr and Michael Jonzun conception, but produced by Baker and Robie. The song is little more than an electro update of "ABC," Ralph Tresvant was never going to be another Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown's rapping was annoying even at that early stage, and next to the unforced naturalness of Musical Youth it all still seems more than a little contrived, and probably in an unpleasant sense. This underlines the ultimate failure of Now 1; so we couldn’t get Michael Jackson, the biggest pop star on the planet, but here’s somebody who sounds like he USED to sound. And somebody else in the background who will grow up to be somebody extremely unpleasant. What was that about a Georgian market square, and hell?

Howard Jones/Simple Minds

To be written about in the near future, but not here. For now there is Bob Marley’s “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery” and there is “Throw off your mental chains.”

Peabo Bryson & Roberta Flack

Side three was evidently meant to be the “adult” side, as it closes with UB40’s “Please Don’t Make Me Sleep” followed by this 1975 snooze of a Mathis Collection duet. But the sequencing is beyond awry and the hoped-for demographic much too hopelessly wide. Did anybody like Peabo Bryson AND The Cure? And yet for one week this outsold “Karma Chameleon.” Where’s “Islands In The Stream” when you need it?

Tracey Ullman

The Kirsty MacColl-ness. The punctum pause: “Ba-a-by-y!” He’s bad, but I love him: see “Papa Don’t Preach.” Potential sequel to this song: “Fairytale Of New York.” Did Amy Winehouse hear this record as an infant? It plays like a happy Amy song, complete with the he’s-bad-BUT trademark. More ahead of its time than you imagine. The only woman on the cover, in the centre of a field of men, two of whom appear twice.

Will Powers

It doesn’t say very much about any newness relating to Now 1 that its most outré moment is provided by, of all people, Lynn Goldsmith, with her musical chums, nearly all of whom were around before punk. Terrific in a Tom Tom Club kind of way – it could so easily have fallen over into the Meri Wilson side of that particular fence – and Carly Simon might not have sounded better or more alive than here.

The Cure

I wish I could provide Cap’n Bob with a more positive welcome to TPL but The Cure essentially mucking around with jazz and psychedelia has been so eroded by three decades of radio overplay that it’s completely lost its mischief. No, Pornography was as far as “that” Cure could ever have gone without exploding. But “Let’s Go To Bed” was better pop and none of the Banshees hits or spinoffs (“Dear Prudence,” The Creatures, The Glove) bothers to put in an appearance here. To the record’s loss.


Their last top ten hit in their original lifetime, and hardly heard now; it plays like a miserablist dilution of 1982’s “Primrose Hill,” and only David Bedford’s strings lift the song out of the morass. Suggs sings like Robert Wyatt hidden behind a muffler, “Wings Of A Dove,” though incongruously jaunty (it made number two but sounded as though the band were beginning to make records to please NME writers), was a bigger hit, no useful sense of liberation or catharsis is communicated, and ultimately we are left with a…

…Hall Of Mirrors

A sense of no risk being taken. A sense of the record not being ambitious, or brave, enough. A “grazing experience” as Lena put it.

But there is more, and it is sinister; I think that the arrival and success of the Now brand constituted the first nail in the coffin of what is generally regarded as the pop single. Think, even, about that “I” in “Now That’s What I Call Music”; who is this “I”? Who’s doing the deciding, the dictating? It might not be as threatening as the “we” of today – “Why we all love Breaking Bad” when one has not even SEEN Breaking Bad – but it was a way for the old, conservative music industry to get back in, having worked New Pop out, and nipping any genuine newness in the bud. It would affect the way people regarded the single – if they are all handily collected, why bother with singles? – and, worse, alter the way in which pop was conceived, listened to, watched and sold. Soon (in 1983 terms) there will come the time when worried record companies will begin to make records in the hope that they will end up on a Now compilation, and a generation before the internet makes its full impact, the consumers will gradually disengage themselves from the form. Before long, TPL will consist of little other than these records, these treated logs, these doctored journals, and solidification and morbidity will set in.

NOW, the British music industry knows exactly what the hell is going on in their own world, and will be damned if they will give it somebody else, somebody new and untested, or an established artist whose career plan won’t particularly be advanced by inclusion on these records. Thatcher had won again in July 1983. Everything, and everybody, was happy. Don’t complain. Don’t DARE complain. Be the worst you can be.

Like I said, Now is the end of something, and this is the fulsome picture of the hell that has now arrived; people pretending to be happy when their souls and their homes have been stolen away, the school choir unity of too many charity records to come, the desecration of gospel that will culminate in Cowell, the central assembly point for people who don’t want subtext, excitement or outrage – or even mild difference – but shiny conveyor belt shite that will fit in the checkout with the Brillo pads and Johnson’s air fresheners.

This music was better when I was nineteen.

But, these days we can no longer see.

Tuesday 25 March 2014

DURAN DURAN: Seven And The Ragged Tiger

(#292: 3 December 1983, 1 week)

Track listing: The Reflex/New Moon On Monday/(I’m Looking For) Cracks In The Pavement/I Take The Dice/Of Crime And Passion/Union Of The Snake/Shadows On Your Side/Tiger Tiger/The Seventh Stranger

If 1983 TPL has taught me anything, it is the old lesson never to take anything for granted. When I wrote about Raiders Of The Pop Charts over four months ago I gloomily predicted that most of that year’s twenty-one chart-topping albums would be wretched and/or inexplicable, and since then both Lena and I have been constantly surprised by how regularly and radically our expectations have been overturned. Records which were favourites at the time have turned out to be retrospective disappointments, and a high proportion of records I would have dismissed at the time have turned out to be surprisingly rewarding.

So it has proven to be the case with the third Duran Duran album. The reason why U2’s live mini-album Under A Blood Red Sky does not appear directly in this tale is that it finished second behind Seven And The Ragged Tiger (although the chart positions were reversed in the NME). What doesn’t come across, however, is the enormous statistical margin by which Duran were ahead of U2, nor indeed how huge a group they were in late 1983 Britain; note that this album went platinum in its first week of release. Words like “Durandemonium” were regularly used in newspaper headlines. They were the biggest thing, if not since the Beatles, then certainly since the Rollers.

And the two respective constituencies have to be taken into account. U2 were, in late 1983, a rock band, and very firmly a boys’ band (“Stories For Boys” as they themselves might put it). Whereas Duran were loved, primarily, by the girls; and it is for this reason, I would posit, that their critical stock has remained at a relatively low level, even when two decades’ worth of musicians, both in Britain and the United States, have declared how important they were to their own development, how deeply they influenced their own music.

Boys sneered; but girls listened. I have previously said that Duran could be considered what we might call a “portal” group; an approachable route by which young listeners might have their minds opened to the work of the many artists who influenced the group. How many teenagers got into Roxy Music, the New York Dolls, the Pistols, Chic, or for that matter into art, or literature, or cinema, because Duran was their first port of call?

And, for a while, they pulled it off quite successfully. They moved rapidly from the predominantly electronic airs of their eponymous debut album to a more settled funk/glam crossover on Rio; true, the record may in some ways have been Tin Drum for beginners, but to accuse Duran of not being Japan is, I think, missing the point; you become enticed by “Save A Prayer” and, more pressingly, “The Chauffeur,” and then you progress to things like “Swing” and “Ghosts,” if, indeed, progression it be.

The title of their third album was a reference to the five band members and their two managers, chasing the dragon of success (the “ragged tiger”). At the time of release, the record was generally ridiculed; as tax exiles, they wrote the songs in Cannes and recorded them in Montserrat, and then Sydney (the cover picture was taken on the steps of the State Library of New South Wales, in Sydney’s Macquarie Street), and the record was regarded as hurriedly assembled cocaine-fuelled indulgence with inscrutable lyrics, with a general air as if punk had never happened.

This belief was perhaps encouraged by Culture Club, who famously, and repeatedly, proclaimed that Duran were about the things their fans couldn’t have in life, whereas Culture Club were about the things they could have. Well, that might be true, but possibly not in the sense they thought; put against Colour By Numbers – both album sleeves were designed by Assorted iMaGes, and each plays as a negation of, or complement to, the other – Seven And The Ragged Tiger seems to be about things that can’t be had, or reached. Some of the lyrics may refer to drugs; somebody claimed, with reason, that “Union Of The Snake” was about oral sex. I’m not going to try to pick the bones of Simon le Bon’s words here, but it has to be said that whatever they may mean, he delivers them with at least as much conviction as Boy George delivers his.

The album is not really New Romantic or New Pop; New Art-Rock may be nearer the mark. But so much of it is reassured to a degree that belies the accusations of laxity and indulgence, and whatever you may make of le Bon’s vocal stylings – they are an acquired taste, but I can’t think of anybody else whose voice would have worked so well in this context – the musicians with him are constantly inventive, never settling for the obvious. “The Reflex,” here in its original form, may be cocaine-fuelled paranoia – “I sold the Renoir and the TV set” plays like a setting for Trainspotting written by Bret Easton Ellis – but its funk, with its stops, starts and ruminations, is noticeably sparkier and more involving than anything Bowie was essaying at the time, while providing a bridge back to songs like “Rio”; brooding twilit verses giving way to euphoric sunrises of choruses. Likewise, “Union Of The Snake,” which shockingly failed to climb beyond number three as a single (“IS THIS IS THE END OF DURAN DURAN?,” headlines proclaimed), works surprisingly well in its slowly escalating paranoia, le Bon’s voice reminding me of a David Sylvian caught midway between “Adolescent Sex” and “Art Of Parties,” between the glamour and the art – and Andy Hamilton’s growling soprano sax also helps develop a faintly autumnal mood; it’s “Let’s Dance,” but far, far better.

Elsewhere on the record there is nothing that is less than interesting. “New Moon On Monday” stutters into being with le Bon seemingly trying to be Elvis (“Shake up the picture, the liquid mixture,” done like the first line of “All Shook Up”) but then the song infiltrates into existence with its crowd noises, firework explosions and Nick Rhodes and John Taylor ceaselessly inventive on keyboards and bass respectively. The rest of side one plays like a more playful third side of For Your Pleasure; “Cracks In The Pavement” is angry and determined (“If I had a car I’d drive it INSANE!” yelps le Bon, perhaps nodding to Bowie or even Bolan); “I Take The Dice” has le Bon seemingly trying to exorcise the ghost of Sylvian (his protracted “MID-NIIIIIIIIGHT!!”s) and “Of Crime And Passion” involves harmonic and rhythmic structures which seem to me to point the way pretty directly to mid-nineties Blur (specifically “Trouble At The Message Centre,” although I also think of the refrain from “Tracy Jacks,” “I’d love to stay here and be normal/But then it’s just so overrated,” which really could be this record’s theme). The chord changes throughout these three songs are as surprising, joyous and inevitable as Roxy at their best and most elusive (“The Bogus Man”).

Yet again, however, it has to be said that these are not happy songs. “Shadows On Your Side” continues in much the same vein – not so much the Pistols plus Chic, but New York Dolls nonchalance mixed with Norman Whitfield stoic despair – and when le Bon proclaims, “You can run, you can dive, you can stand and you can soar,” he is not particularly urging the listener to be a maker or doer; it is more the dawning realisation that no matter where or what or who you are, regardless of how big you might get – you never escape yourself. “Tiger Tiger” is an instrumental which moves from pointillistic abstraction to a slowly-emergng majesty, with Hamilton’s saxophone again referring us back to Avalon, or possibly even to “Subterraneans.”

It is strange how so many of these albums depend on the last song. Rio certainly did – all that tongue-in-cheek glamour culminating in a desolate, terminal beach, or is it just the spectre of having to grow up? – and so does Seven; “The Seventh Stranger,” slow, patient and tragic – just like “Victims” and “Hello” – is one of the great Duran songs: the chorus line “I’m changing my name just as the sun goes down” is set against hauntingly, even poignantly affecting descending chords – John Taylor’s bass playing subtle tribute to Bernard Edwards, or would that be James Jamerson? – and a multidimensional elegy which does betray the air of a long, decaying sunset, the end of something. And for somebody constantly accused of writing deliberately obfuscatory lyrics, le Bon’s words and message here are remarkably clear; he wants you to try to understand him and how he is, and why, despite everything, the love, adulation and success, he might still want to disappear and become somebody else. He eventually does disappear – this is Duran’s “Taking Islands In Africa” – and the other four musicians all make a loud, final, slightly desperate push, perhaps to hang on to life, before Roger Taylor’s rattlesnake cymbal – the union of the snake - draws a line under the record.

In fact, I found this song enormously affecting – in hindsight, one can see how the teenage Albarn and Coxon might have been inspired to start on the road which culminated in “He Thought Of Cars” and “Yuko And Hiro,” although I couldn’t stop thinking of “Under The Westway”; again, an ending. And so we approach the end of this most puzzling of years, with just one album left to consider, and it is clear that the first wave of New Pop has culminated, or climaxed, and is now dying, or solidifying into something else, something older; but also clear that nothing, but nothing, can be taken for granted. Seven And The Ragged Tiger is a remarkably inventive and ambitious record – oh, did I mention “Decades” in relation to “The Seventh Stranger”? If not, I ought to have done – from a group who, it seems to me, have been hated for entirely the wrong reasons, and who are, perhaps out of all the artists who have had number one albums this year, the act most in need of drastic re-evaluation. Ask Mark Ronson and his record collection how important a season autumn can be.

Next: the end is the beginning.

Monday 24 March 2014

Lionel RICHIE: Can't Slow Down

(#291: 12 November 1983, 1 week; 31 March 1984, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Can’t Slow Down/All Night Long (All Night)/Penny Lover/Stuck On You/Love Will Find A Way/The Only One/Running With The Night/Hello

The credit is there for all to see on the sleeve: “RECORDING AND MIXING ENGINEER: CALVIN HARRIS.” This was two or three months before Adam Wiles was born in Dumfries, but clearly the influence, and the name, stayed with him. I wonder if anything else did.

The fact that Can’t Slow Down remains readily available after thirty-one years whereas Colour By Numbers would seem to have practically disappeared from record shop racks may indicate that the conservative side of pop won the battle. And listening to the record, it would appear that we have penetrated the heart of what would come to be known as “Reaganrock” surprisingly early in its decade. One would have to go back to Perry Como and Johnny Mathis to find records, and possibly people, with such a straightforward aim, namely to comfort rather than challenge their audience, to not be anything other than what they appeared to be. Observe the benign figure of Richie, hanging out in his front room, clothed in various pastel shades, or, in one picture, excitedly sliding down a fireman’s pole. The key words are “welcoming” and “reassuring.”

While I am not going to condemn these two activities as negative – as both are vital – it doesn’t negate the feeling that Can’t Slow Down is squarely, with the accent on “square,” aimed at the widest and least discriminatory of international audiences. Like Colour By Numbers, you could expect to find a copy in Akron or by Mount Kilimanjaro; unlike Colour By Numbers, it is nothing other than a meticulously planned sequence of easy-on-the-ear songs which offer, in a very superficial sense, something different for everybody. There’s country and western (“Stuck On You”), Stevie Wonder jazz-funk lite (“Love Will Find A Way”), AoR (“Running With The Night”) and an apparent compendium of mores in contemporary black pop (“All Night Long”). Everything, indeed, except an individual voice.

The opening title track sets the pace; fast and purposeful, it plays like one’s parents’ notion of a more sedate “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin,’” with some very cautious whoops and hiccups from Richie; but on closer inspection it turns out to be another song about being on the road, away from home. That or Berry Gordy is showing him some pie charts and bar graphs. The song in itself is an advance on anything from Richie’s 1982 eponymous solo debut, which mostly consisted of drippy ballads (not that this dissuaded the public; although it climbed no higher than #9 in the British album charts, it stayed around for eighty-six weeks), but it doesn’t usefully tell us anything new about its performer.

I am aware that I run the imminent risk of becoming the subject of a HM Bateman-style Punch cartoon: “The Man Who Didn’t Like ‘All Night Long.’” It is not so much that I don’t like the song or the record; it is that, after thirty-one years of trying to get to grips with it, I still find it difficult to understand why it was received with such fervent applause and approval, from Terry Wogan to Richard Cook; as a single, it ranked seventh in the NME critics’ 1983 Top 50 – two places higher than “This Charming Man” – and reportedly was beaten to number one in the UK charts by Billy Joel’s timeless, or untimely, classic “Uptown Girl” by a margin of twenty-five copies. But, even after watching the spectacular performance of the song which closed the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, I still didn’t get it. It wasn’t even the best song called “All Night Long” released by Motown in 1983.

This does not mean that I do not appreciate the partially exacting care that was taken to make this record what it is. As I said above, the song is a virtual anthology of black popular music of the period (including hip hop in the percussion break); a lead vocal which more or less stems from the influence of Harry Belafonte (with occasional marimbas) with a respectful nod to Bob Marley, a spaciousness of rhythm and light which recalls the Grace Jones of Nightclubbing and the Marvin Gaye of Midnight Love, horns as lush as Earth, Wind and Fire, and a somewhat clouded look to Africa (the “African” chants halfway through are, by the admission of their author, gibberish; he didn’t have enough time to bring in a translator to write authentic African lyrics). As a pop arrangement, rhythm, strings and brass are diplomatically brought in and out of the picture when needed; when Richie exclaims “SEE HOW WE PLAY!” and the horns and crowd come to life, it is as if somebody has walked into the nuclear bunker, switched on the lights and started a party. And this, surely, was the secret behind “All Night Long”’s exceptionally favourable reception; at a time when the world felt uncertain, even fearful of the still impending possibility of apocalypse, its people wanted reassurance, lightness, an invitation to party. Dancing in smiling rage against the dying of the light.

Following this initial rejuvenation, however, Richie quickly settles back into routine. “Penny Lover” is a nondescript ballad which, like most of these eight songs, goes on too long, or long enough to become worrisome, as though Richie cannot quite hold onto his notion of true love. “Stuck On You” is, as I said, one for the Kenny Rogers fans – and a reminder that Richie was the most commercially successful black musician to emerge from Alabama since Nat “King” Cole – and also the only song on the record where the singer is comfortably settled with somebody else; the tour is over, he is off the road and back home (“Mighty glad you stayed,” he sighs, indirectly paraphrasing Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight”), although it is an indication of the nature of this globally friendly pop that, in Britain, the bigger hit version was the excellent lover’s rock reading by Trevor Walters.

“Love Will Find A Way,” written with, and mostly played by, Greg Phillinganes, is an agreeable six minutes or so of patient midtempo jazz-funk, taking the raw material of Rotary Connection and Roy Ayers and distilling it, via a low lead vocal slightly reminiscent of Bill Withers, into a template for eighties soul; there is a certain degree of similarity to what Loose Ends would come up with eighteen months later, particularly “Hangin’ On A String,” although Richie is free of the latter’s darkening clouds of trouble and uncertainty, offering benign Road Less Travelled homilies in their place. An “All In Love Is Fair” for impatient commodity brokers. But despite the immediately identifiable keyboards of David Foster, “The Only One” isn’t much of anything, including its final, predictable, upward key change. “Running With The Night,” too – co-written with no less a sixties personage than Cynthia Weil – settles too comfortably in its “token rock song” niche (the backing band is essentially Toto); Steve Lukather’s guitar solo overstates the point somewhat, obscuring that there really is nothing at stake here, apart from Richie reminiscing solely in the past tense, and (as Lena commented) a certain rhythmic and structural similarity to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Two Divided By Zero.”

Unlike Please, however, Can’t Slow Down has no “Later Tonight,” no emotional cards on the table moments like “Love Comes Quickly.” Richie never seems to drop his guard, but it may well be that he simply has no guard to drop; he is saying and expressing nothing more than what we hear him expressing and saying.

Until, that is, the closing song.

Like “Victims,” “Hello” is left until last because nothing can literally follow it; it is, as “Victims” was, the most intense song on the record. While the advent of the music video has enabled many mediocre songs to disguise themselves as masterpieces, it is a rare occasion when a song is actually devalued by its video; but such is the case with "Hello," by some distance the darkest, bleakest song Lionel Richie has ever written. In Britain the single was number one for six weeks, so there was ample opportunity - not least because the video, invariably played in full, took up about a third of each week's TOTP - to gasp and sigh at the artist's profound misunderstanding of his own work.

"Hello" is a different and altogether more problematic affair than its video, or indeed anything else on its parent album. Comparisons were made at the time with Alec Wilder's song "Where Do You Go?" - best heard sung by Sinatra on 1960's No One Cares album - a song about emptiness in the same way that those red balloons are about dust. The song and performance are enclosed in dusk, Richie's head crouched down in the furthest and darkest corner, pinned to the wall by his mind's own shadows. He sees this girl pass outside his door - he doesn't say how often other than a non-committal "sometimes" but the depth of his second-hand guessing (the sunlight in her hair, her knowledge about just what to do or say) suggests his head is perhaps glued to that door in hope of constant sightings - in the full knowledge that he will never get the opportunity to tell her how he feels, or even to tell her to tell him how to win her heart.

At least Tony Orlando had the questionable chutzpah to push a letter under the door downstairs. But "Hello" can also be usefully compared with a leading song from another Motown era, "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)" by the Temptations. Although the latter is ostensibly an update of the old doo-wop theme of dreaming about That Pretty Girl, Eddie Kendricks' lead vocal is troubled; he imagines in depth their potential life together, but the final, grievous reckoning of the resigned, hopeless "But in reality...she doesn't even know me" suggests a mind in flux, echoed by Paul Riser's neurasthenic strings and Norman Whitfield's shifting perspectives of production.

There is an element of optimism still within "Just My Imagination" but in "Hello" that nugget has evaporated entirely. The minor-key structure of the song with only occasional regretful nods to the major (including the final Picardy third, following Richie's final, sobbed "you" – at last, the guard is dropped) is more fitting to a song entitled "Goodbye." But he asks questions which may be directed at himself: "I wonder where you are/And I wonder what you do/Are you somewhere feeling lonely/Or is someone loving you?" It is the manifestation of a potentially dangerous neurotic attraction, and it also raises the question of whether the seven songs which precede it on the album are, indeed, only fantasies, things happening solely in the artist’s head (the dripping tap of a guitar solo, played by, of all people, Louie Shelton, who appeared on the first Byrds album).

But only, I feel, up to a point. “Hello” is a sad song in the place on the album where a sad song should be. As far as early eighties Motown was concerned, Richie was no Rick James, and Can’t Slow Down is no Cold Blooded. But the ingredients for Reaganrock are all in place; to disturb and move the listener as little as possible, to sound immaculate and new, but only at a distance. This, pop music of the eighties, is your future. At times it is enough to provoke one to dig out the debut Run-DMC album to plot a different future – or to look to the following year’s Purple Rain so that all of the implications that this record chooses not to follow can be acted upon and made to change things. Here it is like pop Cheers – wander in, say hi, make small talk, be agreed with and wander out again. No trouble, no bother. Our pleasure. In Britain, Can’t Slow Down was the biggest-selling album of 1984. Think about that sentence. Long and hard.

Saturday 22 March 2014

CULTURE CLUB: Colour By Numbers

(#290: 22 October 1983, 3 weeks; 19 November 1983, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Karma Chameleon/It’s A Miracle/Black Money/Changing Every Day/That’s The Way (I’m Only Trying To Help You)/Church Of The Poison Mind/Miss Me Blind/Mister Man/Stormkeeper/Victims

Two observations. First, Colour By Numbers was released in the same blowsy October week as The Jam’s double greatest hits compilation Snap!, and duly kept the latter at number two in the chart. While my dutiful buying of both had no effect on either’s chart position, Culture Club’s triumph did seem like a natural succession as far as pop was concerned. Paul Weller and Boy George; two young men brought up at enough of a distance from London to make the city seem exotic and desirable (both have lovingly recalled exciting childhood train journeys from suburbia to the capital, and never wanting to leave), and both musicians with enough ambition and chutzpah to want to reorganise the pop music they loved into new, relevant shapes, something which might actually speak to the people who, they hoped, would love or at least admire them. Beyond that, they were both young men for whom style (specifically, clothing; both the clothes they wore and the way they wore them) was of equal importance to music; they regarded the look and sound as indivisible.

Growing up in Glasgow as I did, too young to go to London and hang out at Billy’s or the Blitz – not that I would have ever been let into either – in an environment where reading a book was enough to mark you out as being potentially gay, never mind how you dressed, I have to admit that The Jam’s way was closer to my time and inclination than that of Culture Club. I spent the eighties attempting to dress as smartly as possible, rather than outrageously, which usually took the form of bright, primary-coloured suits – the sort you don’t really find these days outside of ludicrously priced limited edition items in Sloane Street - and suchlike. It was a Mod thing rather than a dodgy eighties television presenter thing. Moreover, as a naturally introverted fellow, I never had the cheek or the confidence to do any meaningful networking or push myself forward in any artistic circles. I’m not an expert, or even competent, in working the room.

By the time Colour By Numbers came out, I was still a student, away from London and therefore out of the perceived centre of early eighties pop activity. But I had learned enough about Culture Club and what New Pop was becoming, or turning into, to recognise what I was witnessing. And so it was that, if only for the briefest of times, Culture Club became to its followers what The Jam had been to their followers half a decade previously; a touchstone for how to look, how to sound, and, with any luck, how to live. Snap! in its original 2-LP (with bonus 7” live EP) form is not quite perfect, but as a Jam/Weller starter pack it was, and is, indispensable (avoid the unsatisfactory Compact Snap! CD which loses key songs like “English Rose,” “The Butterfly Collector” and “Tales From The Riverbank”; thankfully the record was released on CD in its original form in 2006). But The Jam no longer existed in 1983, and The Style Council were not (yet) really as popular as The Jam had been. Whereas Culture Club most certainly did exist, and Colour By Numbers sounded bright and confident, looked colourful, and was about as good, or as great, a pop record as you might find in the later days of the first wave of New Pop.

My second observation is to do with the 1982 film Tootsie, a light entertainment which skilfully skates over difficult questions, a movie which treats gender uncertainty as a source of amusement and completely avoids the question of whether somebody’s sexuality could be swayed or altered in an environment – show business – where such things had long been taken as read. Much of this, admittedly, could have been done despite the protestations of some of the screenwriters involved, Elaine May among them, by jittery studio executives anxious to keep the film “clean.” My point is that Boy George and Culture Club set up a perspective – in my view, a truer perspective – where sexual ambiguity and gender subversion, even if only to demonstrate that effeminacy in men was a valid attribute in itself, did not constitute some slapstick trick, but were part of the DNA of show business, the fuel which underscores all industry.

Furthermore, setting up such a perspective in the heartland of New Pop was itself a deeply New Pop gesture, and I suspect a big part of what New Pop had been working towards, for its audience to accept. It is a matter of documented fact that the gay community regarded Culture Club with some suspicion; they were not popular in San Francisco, George cheerfully admitted having been thrown out of gay clubs more times than he could remember, and some gay pop figures who would come to prominence in 1984, such as Jimmy Somerville and Paul Rutherford, wondered whether the singer had set things back rather than move them forward; George’s angry response was to say that he was pushing the envelope far further, pushing effeminacy into people’s living rooms, rubbing it in their faces, forcing them to accept it.

On the other hand, George was, at the time, legendarily ambiguous about his own sexuality; he would tend to dismiss any such suggestions with one-liners or sidesteps. But then again, his declared aim was to get, or persuade, as wide a demographic as possible to love him and his music, and while he got the balance between forthright and lovable right, he managed to do it; he won over America in the same way Elton John had done a decade earlier – in times of strife and uncertainty, cheerful and colourful reassurance was required – and in Britain he came through to the grannies in Arbroath as effortlessly and naturally as the hipsters in Soho. I saw him in early 1981 as a very temporary co-lead singer in Bow Wow Wow (as “Lieutenant Lush”) at the Rainbow Theatre in London, where the band were just one of many fairground-style attractions; there was a full-scale helter-skelter, candyfloss stalls, even a jazz big band (The Sound Of 17, as I recall), and it felt like pop’s future, but George in particular already carried an aura about what he did, and how he disposed himself around the stage, such that it was clear that he wouldn’t stay at this level for very long (my only comment at the time was that he could do with looking a little less severe).

In any case, the story of the people involved in those early days at Billy’s, etc., is the story of a London long since vanished; a world of cheap rents, of easily available squats in the centre of the city, a society where people who had nothing, indeed had been forcibly ostracised from mainstream life, could use that nothing to their advantage, picking up what they could find or scrounge or scrape together to create something entirely new and wholly individual. So when George and Helen Terry stood at either end of the front of the stage to sing “That’s The Way (I’m Only Trying To Help You)” to each other – this gangling six-foot transvestite and a small but full-bodied woman approaching thirty – it was like one misfit reaching out to, listening to and touching another misfit, and the recorded version, which is really only George and Helen, with Roy Hay (I think) on piano, is one of the album’s most moving moments for that reason. It touches the intended listener, too; the loose nail in the classroom or the office who wouldn’t be hammered in, the vulnerable teenager told by the Job Centre that they are nothing and have nothing to offer society – this, the song seems to say, is for you too, although it remains a song of substantial sadness; the piano introduction, briefly referencing “Oh You Pretty Thing,” is the record’s only real nod to Bowie, that lighthouse for dismissed and confused souls a decade earlier (and George was as keen a Bowie boy as Almond or Morrissey). The song sweeps along with a generosity and understanding of musical space which makes it worthy of peak-period Prince. And yet – “Hey, I woke up on my own this morning,” and the dread-filled “That’s the way we destroy baby,” which when sung sounds like “That’s the way we destroy a baby,” thereby placing this song in the unlikely lineage of the Pistols’ “Bodies.”

(And given the general importance of Helen Terry to Colour By Numbers – even though she was, strictly speaking, a session singer rather than a full member of the group, paid per recording or performance – it may be time to dispel the notion that she was a member of the group Thunderthighs, who appeared on “Walk On The Wild Side” and “Roll Away The Stone” and later released a few singles of their own, including 1974’s deeply disturbing Lynsey de Paul-penned anti-rape song “Central Park Arrest,” which was, though unimaginable today, a Top 30 hit; at that time Terry would still have been a teenager, and the singers who actually did constitute Thunderthighs were Karen Friedman, Dari Lalou and Casey Synge. Still, their subsequent two non-charting singles, “Dracula’s Daughter” and “Stand Up And Cheer,” remain strong and distinctive enough to justify a salvage job on/CD release of their never-issued album.)

I’m focusing on this song in particular because of the general reception and perception of Colour By Numbers as the apogee of cheerful, uplifting eighties pop. Certainly its music continues to carry a lightness and beneficence which, frankly, wipe the floor with many of the record’s TPL contemporaries. Like all great pop records, it plays like a greatest hits album; hit after hit after tune, every song different in style and approach, and all performed with this aforementioned confidence and ease, like multiple suns rising to blot out darkness forever. There is no reason why you should not be gladdened or elevated by this record – that is, until you listen to it more closely and realise what it is saying, or trying to say.

It is not the business of this piece to dwell on who had an affair with whom, or whom these songs are about; this information is well documented and can be found in many published sources, and all I will say here is that a good comparison would be with Rumours, a comparison which I am sure George would relish. My concern here is how well Colour By Numbers stands up as a record and what greater thing it is trying to say.

The record opens, as it had to, with “Karma Chameleon,” the year’s biggest single (and in terms of 1983 album sales, Colour By Numbers was second only to Thriller) and a song which, according to its singer and co-author, is about “the terrible fear of alienation that people have, the fear of standing up for one thing. It's about trying to suck up to everybody.” About avoiding ever having to decide who you are and express how you feel. It is, musically, superior bubblegum, complete with Mr Bloe harmonica, which superficially might have hit for Daniel Boone in 1972 or Jimmy Jones in 1960 (the chorus is slightly reminiscent of “Good Timin’”), ”), expertly moulded to provide an international smash, down to the Eurovision military tattoo of Jon Moss’ drums towards the song’s end (and in terms of expert moulding, one should pay due respect to the fifth composer of “Karma Chameleon” and unofficial Culture Club keyboard player Phil Pickett, formerly of Sailor – “A Glass Of Champagne,” etc. – who lent his considerable experience and knowhow to the Culture Club sound).

Up front, meanwhile, George repeatedly sings, or taunts “You come and go,” and further, “When you go, you’re gone forever” while paraphrasing  the bitching of the song’s subject (“I’m a man without conviction” and “you used to be so sweet” are both attributed to the song’s second person). “Every day is like survival!” George protests, smiling sweetly. “Sur-vi-val!” chant the band back cheerfully. “You’re my lover, not my rival!” An “empty” song about emptiness; what better song to signal its year? Though obviously unanticipated at the time, Lena looked at the 45 single cover and noted how much George resembled Lorde.

In terms of getting that international smash, it should be noted that “It’s A Miracle” (also co-written by the group and Pickett) was originally entitled “It’s America,” and the music on the album sounds expressly tailored to meet the demands of its hoped-for global market; it sounds transatlantic rather than specifically British or American. As jolly as the song’s surface skips along – with a keyboard riff which may owe something to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Matrimony” – the lyric, and its delivery, are no laughing matter, speaking as it does of “guns,” “counterfeit” and “plastic smiles.” “Monroe was there,” sighs a weary George of Hollywood, “but do you really care?” Nick Grainger’s saxophone solo is aptly grainy, whereas Terry’s brief scat-singing interlude serves, in this context, to introduce her as the alter ego who can express what George sometimes only hints at.

Whereas “Black Money,” the album’s longest song, is a superb ballad, probing, mysterious, compassionate and bleak, which borders on deep soul; again the subject is emotional betrayal (“Somebody else’s life cannot be mine”) and the interplay between George and Terry, if not quite Bobby Womack and Patti LaBelle, is exacting and gripping. Both this and “Changing Every Day” strongly suggest consolidation of things that the 1983 Style Council were still working towards but had not yet quite achieved; the latter’s Tropicalia-lite balances perilously on a fence separating it from The Jimmy Young Show, and succeeds mainly because of Terry’s determined and pushy supporting vocals and the unsentimentality of the lyric, which combines the theme of “In The Ghetto” (“Someone says/Wake up, child/And throw your life away”) with a critique of the free market (“Pushed into production/What a way to live our lives”).

“Church Of The Poison Mind,” which opens side two, is brilliant and poundingly angry pop, inhabiting a triangle whose borders are Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight,” Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere To Run” and Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Back Of Love,” with Judd Lander’s harmonica now sounding closer to “A New Career In A New Town” and Terry’s co-lead vocal explosive; there are even hints of the Beach Boys in the middle-eight harmonies. As a huge “NO!” to everything that the rest of 1983 pop appeared to stand for, it remains a compelling listen.

“Miss Me Blind,” a single just about everywhere except Britain, is just terrific pop, with a lyric which skilfully skies between faithless lover putdown (it includes another rhetorical “would I lie to you?”) and cynicism about the ability of money in itself to save anybody or anything (such that the song’s second half is effectively a metaphor for capitalism; “And you’ll never be sure/If the way that you need/Is too much like greed”). Over this, Hay’s guitar – inspired, apparently, by Eddie van Halen’s solo on “Beat It,” but bearing the huge influence of Ernie Isley – rages (George originally bridled at the guitar, allegedly recorded by Hay one afternoon while the singer was at the dentist’s, but appreciated how it helped the song’s innate anger); from his solo the song segues directly, and miraculously, into a passage which could have come straight from Shalamar (specifically “A Night To Remember”).

The next two songs return to reggae from different angles; “Mister Man” more or less puts UB40 in the shade, with George’s highly nuanced and multidirectional vocals and a far punchier production (from Steve Levine) – and also a harmonic line which is strikingly similar to Jackson’s “Human Nature” (not that Culture Club’s magpie borrowings are any less valid than Springsteen’s enthusiastic ‘50s and ‘60s cut-and-pastes throughout Born To Run). The lyric, however, is one of the record’s darkest – there are yet more guns, as well as violence and hatred, but also culminates in a plea – or is it a threat? – to the concept of “man,” that other notions of “man” need to be introduced, understood and accepted (hence the blackly comedic double entendres about needing no gun to be shot dead by “the midnight cowboy”). “I’m much more black than blue,” sings George. He is singing directly to his deepest enemies. Patrick Seymour’s flutes on “Stormkeeper,” a fairly straightforward lover’s rock ballad, were allegedly influenced by Men At Work, although Boris Gardiner’s “Elizabethan Reggae” may be a better comparison point; and yet here too, love is receding, ignorance is replacing enlightenment and cowardice bravery. The resounding gong which terminates the song is reminiscent of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and I am sure that this was not an accident.

“Victims” is this not particularly happy record’s final word (note how there is no specific point on the record where the singer is uncomplicatedly happy and settled with somebody) and through its sorrowful arteries flow what sounds like a pocket history of pop music. Essentially a three-part ballad, first with George and piano, second with George, rhythm section and full orchestra, and third with no George at all, this complex and worrying song is about the end of a relationship, perhaps the end of love, coupled with a passion on the part of the singer for love NOT to end. They are not getting on, and the person he is singing about may be responsible for the post-Phil Collins gated drums which open the song up, like a preserved Babylon, but he is also addressing a greater, wider emptiness. There are passing references to Free (“What places our hearts in the wishing well”) and Joy Division, the group New Pop just can’t forget (“Take a ride into unknown pleasure” – need I even say here that the elephant in the 1983 TPL living room is “Blue Monday”?). But there are also interludes of unexpected tenderness amidst the grief, not least George’s defiant “Push aside those who whispered NEVER!” Although the theme of loss remains paramount (“The victims, we know them so well…/So well”) there is, somehow, still hope awaiting rebirth; “Victims” could almost be New Pop’s “Surf’s Up.”

Around George’s voice swirls an immaculate pop architecture. Drums give rise to a glum sunrise of strings, French horns and voices, Helen Terry now just a part of the detail of the overall picture (and one of the other backing singers on this and other songs on the album is the young Jermaine Stewart). It is as if George is moving forward and leaving the rest of the group behind him (although this clearly was not – yet – the case). There is a moment when high strings sail into the song which made me think of “When Two Worlds Drift Apart” – like Cliff, George boxes around the matter of love so deftly and endlessly that he can’t always tell what the real thing is until it ups and walks away from him. Mikey Craig’s bass work reminds me of Bernard Edwards, and hence makes the song a brooding sequel to “At Last I Am Free.” An oboe conjures up the spectre of “We’ve Only Just Begun” – the life of Karen Carpenter, a victim we knew so well, yet didn’t really know at all, had only just ended, in February 1983 – and the climactic, if reluctant, uptempo orchestral section is reminiscent of both “MacArthur Park” and “Mr Blue Sky.” As a singer, George is more like John Coltrane than Marvin Gaye – the voice as semi-abstract instrument with saxophone-like tonalities; see also the Cocteau Twins’ contemporaneous Head Over Heels – and probably more like Dennis Brown or Gregory Isaacs than either.

But “Victims” sounds like the end of something; the final chord is like the lid of a box closing down, to be forever sealed. Remember that this is the first unabashed New Pop album in this tale since The Lexicon Of Love, and its singer ends up similarly disappointed by what love had to offer him. But if New Pop weren’t to end here, it certainly had to move on from here. How was this done? Colour By Numbers is, more than anything else, concerned about people who just do not fit in (the opening piano of “Victims” is of course irresistibly reminiscent of Elton John); the jumbled religious and sexual symbols decorating the Assorted iMaGes sleeve suggest confusion rather than a new resolution or all-inclusive eclecticism. But within its grooves, the record somehow knows that this perfection cannot be reproduced or replicated, that there is perhaps no way out of the flawless utopia that it proposes.

It is therefore my conclusion that what George proposed was swiftly taken on board and modified by someone else in pop. A month after Colour By Numbers entered the chart at number one, “This Charming Man” debuted in the Top 40 singles chart, and the way forward abruptly became clear. Like George, Morrissey has a voice that is eerily capable of sounding both high and low (and therefore free of normative gender) at the same time. He is also a Bowie boy and well documented misfit from an Anglo-Irish family driven to achieve something just to prove that he ought not to be laughed at. And it may be that Morrissey’s subtler gender subversions actually pushed things further in the direction of acceptance. Hence it may well be the case that The Smiths, not Waking Up With The House On Fire, is the true sequel to Colour By Numbers (“Does the body rule the mind, or does the mind rule the body? I dunno,” “No I’ve never had a job because I’ve NEVER WANTED ONE”). In the meantime, I cannot listen to “Victims” without thinking of those first dreadful reports which came over from the States in the early eighties, or the song’s unexpected (1986) sequel from someone who, even if George didn’t particularly rate his music, was certainly cherished by George for his love of show business as thing in itself. Or, for that matter, the knowledge that an album which managed to sell over ten million copies worldwide has now almost entirely vanished from view, and the question of who is to blame.