Sunday 16 March 2014

Paul YOUNG: No Parlez

(#287: 17 September 1983, 1 week; 1 October 1983, 2 weeks; 10 December 1983, 1 week; 14 January 1984, 1 week)

Track listing: Come Back And Stay/Love Will Tear Us Apart/Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)/Ku Ku Kurama/No Parlez/Behind Your Smile/Love Of The Common People/Oh Women/Iron Out The Rough Spots/Broken Man/Tendertrap/Sex

(Author’s Note: “Sex” was only included on the bonus 12” single given with initial copies of the LP edition of this album, but was appended to the cassette edition and now appears at the end of the current CD edition. I have included it in my summary because, unlike “Murder By Numbers,” it does seem to bring the record to a satisfactory, or puzzling, conclusion as a whole. Those ready to complain about critical inconsistency would do well to consult this website’s supplementary leaflet Our Blog, Our Gaff, Our Rules, available from the authors at a small fee. Note: saying that this supplementary leaflet is available does not necessarily mean that it is available, or indeed exists.)

Delving into the many interviews which Paul Young gave to the music and style press throughout 1983 to promote No Parlez, it is clear that everything and everybody on this record was there at the singer’s behest. The majority of reviews at the time complained about a potentially great voice being drowned out by pointlessly gimmicky and suffocating production, a doomed, instant victim of its own time. But Laurie Latham, hitherto best known for working with Durutti Column, was brought in as producer at Young’s insistence, and against the wishes of most CBS executives. Pino Palladino, the Fabulous Wealthy Tarts, the extended “club mixes”; all were the idea of Young, in conjunction with his keyboard player, co-songwriter and effective co-conspirator, Ian Kewley.

We therefore have to conclude that No Parlez turned out exactly the way Young wanted it to sound, and on listening to the record again it is fitting to ask exactly how many of the 900,000 or so people who bought it chose to give it a second listen. Its unwanted three-decade status as a charity shop/secondhand record shop staple is not so much indicative of a smooth soundtrack to the Thatcher age which had fallen out of fashion, but more suggests that the people who had heard “Wherever I Lay My Hat” or “Love Of The Common People” on the radio and rushed out to buy this, expecting more of the same, were significantly wrongfooted, and therefore confused, by what they were actually confronted with.

For No Parlez is emphatically not what many people still imagine it to be, or wanted it to be. It is of course a possibility that Young could simply have gone into the studio with a decent pick-up band and recorded a tastefully eclectic selection of songs which would have gained him peer respect, sold 900 copies and turn up thirty years later as one of MOJO’s Buried Treasures. But Young, hitherto best known for a late seventies novelty hit about toast, had already tried that as frontman of the Q-Tips (of which Kewley was also a member), the archetypal good-time soul/R&B band whose vitality and energy on stage could not be reproduced on record. Signing a solo deal with CBS, he was intent on doing something different. Hence a collection which includes no less than three songs by the relatively obscure New York punk rocker/power-popper Jack Lee (at that time best known for having composed Blondie’s “Hanging On The Telephone”), one of the least obvious Stax covers I can think of, and a stylistic breadth which also encompasses Joy Division and the former lead singer of Slapp Happy. This was never going to be The Commitments.

On the contrary, I think that No Parlez is one of the most widely misunderstood of British number one albums. Christgau commented that there was a conflict in the record, and in Young’s singing, between emotion and the idea of emotion (“a concern with emotion rather than emotion itself”), but the record actually thrives on this conflict, and is frequently very thrilling as it does so. For instance, “Come Back And Stay” – represented here in its “Scratch Mix” – is one of the most extraordinary introductions to any recent number one album; scratching (and I think this is the first TPL entry to incorporate turntable scratching), psychedelic phasing, collapsing drumkits, Gothic tubular bells, the FWTs’ mechanical backing vocals broken up into its syllabic constituents; it is reminiscent of nothing less than the “That’s Entertainment” mix of ACT’s “Snobbery And Decay” (which of course it predated by four years) – and this is all prior to Young wandering into the mix and beginning the song proper. He gives it a terrific reading; he has a better range than most give him credit for (his hoarsely high “Just LOVE me forev-ER!”). He may be essentially a Paul Rodgers man and lack the conversational subtlety of a Frankie Miller but he knows what he is capable of and, more importantly, understands the song’s essentially desperate nature. Woozy varispeed keyboards provide yet another prelude to Loveless, while the deliberately arch backing vocals (“Did? You? Write? The? Book? Of? Lo-ove?”) seem, as does the use of Kim Leslie and Maz Roberts elsewhere on the record, a deliberate reaction against the prevalence of Soulful, Passionate and Honest backing singers on most other pop of the period; none of these three adjectives could apply to the Tarts, and while there are possible precedents – the Human League, the B-52s – this punk Greek chorus is something new.

Next comes Young’s attempt at “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which is much better than you think, largely because he doesn’t try to mimic the original but instead turns it into what one might call stadium avant-rock; the galloping Bonanza bass (played by Matt Irving, not Palladino) is oddly fitting, and Young expresses his dismay outwardly rather than holding it inside himself – he does the song as Cliff might have sung it, and that is meant as a compliment - is that the ghost of Ian Curtis joining in on the choruses (that low harmony)? Meanwhile, the song is a tour de force for guitarist Steve Bolton, whose agonised squeals throughout suggest the song being squeezed through the hellholes of “Atrocity Exhibition.” And, in the middle distance, the calmly spoken voice of Dagmar Krause, formerly of Slapp Happy and Henry Cow – and at one time the wife of Anthony Moore – reminds us not only of what the younger Ian Curtis would have been listening to, but also of the Belgian woman who entered Curtis’ life near its end (if you want a useful arthouse eighties bookend to No Parlez, try Krause’s great 1986 album Supply And Demand, wherein she interprets the songs Brecht, Weill and Eisler as though John Lydon had stumbled upon them for the first time).

Young’s "Wherever I Lay My Hat" was his breakthrough single and a deserved number one (“Iron Out The Rough Spots” and indeed “Love Of The Common People” had previously been sent out to bat as singles, and gained some radio interest but no commercial response). Affronted soul purists complained that, well, of course Gaye’s original was better. But actually it isn’t. “Hat” was one of his earliest hits, and remains a fairly unpleasant Sam Cooke-ish bolero of cock-waving bravado. It was Young's idea to approach the song as the Gaye of 1983 might have done, after all he'd seen and done and lost, to examine the futility of the ageing roaming lothario, now increasingly resembling a vagabond, hanging on to his knapsack more desperately than whatever is left of his looks and sanity, and moreover to do so against a "Sexual Healing"-derived soundtrack, with those agonised cries familiar from "Just To Keep You Satisfied" and "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You?" These are not emotions Young could have easily reached by re-interpreting, say, “Love Starved Heart” or “You’re The Man.”

Perhaps if Gaye himself, with less than one year to live, had revisited the song we might have witnessed art - though judging by the posthumously released "Sanctified Lady," he might have found “Sex” more to his taste. Young’s voice, a long way away from another ageing roaming lothario, Rod Stewart – in 1983 that was no bad thing - and as demonstrated by the crescendo on the "break" of "break their hearts and deceive them" or the explicitly Gaye-summoning "Ooh na-na-na-na-na" just before singing the title for the final time, he does try to burrow into the song's newly disturbed core prior to slowly vanishing into the long, long road of a fadeout. I also have to say that Palladino’s fretless bass doesn’t bother me as it does other people, and shouldn’t be a problem if you know your Eberhard Weber.

But “Ku Ku Kurama,” written by Bolton, is something completely unexpected in this context; a song which appears to be about mutual incomprehension (“Me, I know nothing”; pop as Fawlty Towers would understand it) as well as an attack on modern capitalism (“Steal from each other/WAKE UP!!”). Beginning like Toto Coelo on Pro Plus, Young surprisingly deviates into a low Gary Numan/Robert Palmer drawling drone. The Tarts’ voices are at times sped up to 78 rpm, at other times do free-form call-and-response which sounds like a late seventies FMP improv session (see, very pertinently, Maggie Nicols and Julie Tippetts’ 1978 FMP album Sweet And S’ours). The mournful chorus calls Robert Wyatt to mind, both melodically and lyrically; and overall I wonder what sort of reaction this music would have got had it been on, say, the new Beck album or the last Animal Collective album.

The impression that beneath a very superficial eighties soul sheen, little of which is actually conveyed or even evident on the record itself, No Parlez is really a seventies art rock album struggling to get out, is heightened by the superb title track. The song “No Parlez” was recorded by its author, the abovementioned Anthony Moore, one year after Young’s record, for his 1984 album The Only Choice – an album produced by Laurie Latham. If the spectre of Peter Gabriel is never far away in its tribal pull – and that of Kate Bush even closer, especially in the closing section of Young’s version, where the African choir Eyethu more or less take the song over – then it also gives Young plenty of room to rage and smoulder, including spoken sections which foretell Propaganda, the near-bipolar interplay between high and low voices, and a general lyrical thrust which appears to be a condemnation of Thatcher’s Britain as well as apartheid-era South Africa: “No question/There’s no debate…,” “For this is your policy/You just don’t wanna talk with me,” “Oh yeah, you hate your children/Still you put the hammer in the hands of the children.” It is a powerful performance and with grim assurance upends any hope of No Parlez being a cosy soundtrack for young couples travelling home from the theatre or the restaurant. As does side one’s closer, Young and Kewley’s “Behind Your Smile,” with its drum machine tattoos recalling the Associates and an overall air of space station Stax, complete with abrupt, startled gasps from the singer (“You can’t help me!,” “I’ve learned my lesson well!” in a manner which presumes that he never will).

“Love Of The Common People” is best known as being a 1970 reggae hit for Nicky Thomas, produced by Joe Gibbs, but was originally a folk song, written in the sixties by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins, and had already been recorded by many artists, including the Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings and John Denver, in the sixties. Apart from the “Ghost Town”-ish appearance of Rico’s trombone midway through, Young’s version looks more to build a bridge between OMD (the Styx of solemn synthesised choirs) and Bo Diddley (the backing singers’ breaths). His reading is slow and stately (musically) and brisk and hopeful (vocally) although the Tarts remain alternately sceptical and anxious throughout (“What’s a job?,” “It’s so COLD!”). Nearly its year’s Christmas number one as a (remixed and reissued) single, the performance stands as another benign-looking damnation of Thatcher’s society, a picture which, depressingly, scarcely needs updating in this age. It slowly fades like a giant exclamation mark of rebuttal.

“Oh Women” – the record’s second Jack Lee song – storms in as though anxious Prince is going to leapfrog it, all speedy, swirling synth stabs, Level 42 bass and an extraordinary sequence where Young’s “Consequence? True or false?” is answered by what sounds like the noises of a disintegrating slot machine. “Iron Out The Rough Spots,” an old Booker T tune beyond the galaxy of obscure, is inventively reworked as though the Brian Wilson of SMiLE had been given the job; all random grunts and shouts, marimba lines, a bizarre fairground calliope refrain, percussion reminiscent of “Workshop,” a Copacabana interlude from hell featuring Kewley’s seriously disturbed piano, an overall minimalism halfway between Japan’s “Cantonese Boy” and the Fun Boy Three/Bananarama team-ups.

“Broken Man” is perhaps Young’s best straight performance on the record; it may even be his “All Of My Heart.” Accompanied only by Kewley’s banks of keyboards and Fairlit, or possibly Emulated, string quartet, Young sings the waltz ballad with genuine conviction; you feel his climactic, hopeless “Make it stop,” and again the most fitting comparison is with the Cliff Richard of “Miss You Nights” and “When Two Worlds Drift Apart.” The album proper ends with the third Young/Kewley song, “Tendertrap,” which despite more controlled backing vocals never really looks for the easy way out; the song always seems to bend into unanticipated de Chirico crevices, Kewley’s Farfisa (as opposed to his very Booker Hammond organ on “Behind Your Smile”) is out of Dave “Baby” Cortez, and even the reappearance of Rico does not signify reassurance.

But it is not really an end to an album; that comes with “Sex,” yet another Jack Lee song, and sonically as adventurous as “Come Back And Stay”; its introduction is almost a prĂ©cis of Rip, Rig and Panic, all agitated percussion and demented piano, and again some scratching, before descending into a speeded-up “Tainted Love” nightmare with an absolutely deadpan (and very Ian Dury-like) lead vocal over huge drifts of sketchy funk chords. There is yet more psychedelic phasing, some Art of Noise-style vocal cut-ups (and again, remember: Into Battle With The Art Of Noise was not released until September 1983), more reminders of the more deranged Associates – and “Relax” is being played and probably being mixed but has not yet been released as a record. The whole thing ends in a pile-up with a James Brown sample (from “Sex Machine”; is this the first number one album incorporating an actual sample?) before everything, including the record, is quickly zipped up.

If it is anything, No Parlez is an impatient record, and it has to be considered a New Pop record, in terms of what it is trying to achieve and how badly it has subsequently been understood. It indicates a degree of courageous and purposefully reckless adventure which I do not think is reproduced on any other number one album for some considerable time (Rudebox?). Try, if you can, to discard the image that oldies radio has impressed, by playing only the single versions of this album’s three hit singles, of a bland, oily eighties MoR soulboy, and listen to what else No Parlez has to offer. Most importantly, rescue this record from its fate – but make sure the bonus 12” is to hand (and if you can find it, the record is best heard on cassette, on a vintage Walkman on a day as sunny and welcoming as today). Lifetimes have, of course, passed since No Parlez was new, but ways of re-interpreting, re-imagining and re-viewing of old songs will always come to fruition, as will singers to imagine, interpret and reinvigorate them; as proof of both theorems, I note in passing that one day after No Parlez first went to number one, Amy Winehouse was born.