(#298: 14 April 1984, 5 weeks)
Track listing: Radio Ga Ga (Queen)/Wouldn’t It Be Good (Nik Kershaw)/Hold Me Now (Thompson Twins)/Get Out Of Your Lazy Bed (Matt Bianco)/More, More, More (Carmel)/Michael Caine (Madness)/Only You (Flying Pickets)/99 Red Balloons (Nena)/Girls Just Want To Have Fun (Cyndi Lauper)/My Guy’s (Mad At Me) (Tracey Ullman)/Break My Stride (Matthew Wilder)/Breakin’ Down (Julia & Company)/That’s Livin’ Alright (Joe Fagin)/I Gave You My Heart (Didn’t I) (Hot Chocolate)/Bird Of Paradise (Snowy White)/Relax (Frankie Goes To Hollywood)/Here Comes The Rain Again (Eurythmics)/What Is Love? (Howard Jones)/What Difference Does It Make? (The Smiths)/(Feels Like) Heaven (Fiction Factory)/The Politics Of Dancing (Re-Flex)/Hyperactive! (Thomas Dolby)/Wishful Thinking (China Crisis)/Modern Love (David Bowie)/It’s A Miracle (Culture Club)/Undercover Of The Night (Rolling Stones)/Wonderland (Big Country)/Run Runaway (Slade)/New Moon On Monday (Duran Duran)/Pipes Of Peace (Paul McCartney)
Now 1 having proved such a success, it was decided to repeat the exercise swiftly. But Now II – we won’t be getting back to those Roman numerals until entry #376 – is not really the same sort of package as its predecessor. This was the first in the series to be compiled by Ashley Abram, who you may remember was hired over from Ronco following the good work he did in putting together Raiders Of The Pop Charts – and although the final assortment of songs is not quite satisfactory, and their sequencing in places somewhat clumsy, there returns the feeling that, somewhere in its television-advertised depths, there lies an effort to tell a story.
It is not quite the same story that would have been told if other significant hits from January and February 1984 (plus a few stragglers from late 1983) had been included; “The Killing Moon,” “Holiday” and “Let The Music Play” (the latter only available on this album’s accompanying videocassette) might have led the story in a different and possibly opposing direction, not to mention the ramifications of “Nobody Told Me” taking on “Pipes Of Peace.” I once again note that CBS, and WEA, continue to hold some key cards to their chests.
But I also note that twenty-six of the thirty songs included on this album are by British, or British-based, artists (including multinational acts like the Thompson Twins, Matt Bianco and Hot Chocolate) with just four non-British acts – three American, one German – all of whom appear on side two. Many notable names, as I said when I wrote about Now 1, make their series debut here, as though cautiously holding back to see how the first collection did before jumping in.
I think it most significant, however, that the album begins and ends with statements from artists who predated the eighties, both of whom are saying, in their own ways, “don’t let it die” – we love the radio, don’t kill it, before the record gradually raises the stakes and we are left with: we love humanity, don’t destroy it. It is as if one last desperate message in a bottle is being smuggled out (it is a true pity that ABC’s “S.O.S.,” which just squeezed into the Top 40 during the period covered, wasn’t a bigger hit and included here) to say: you know, this thing we all say we love – it might be in the process of dying, becoming extinct. There is a lot of angst at work here – the “Us” versus “Them” polemic hinted at throughout entry #297 becomes more apparent - and enough thought was given to the programming to ensure that each of the four sides concludes with a relatively downbeat elegy. Do you, the question appeared to be directed to the record’s listeners, really want to see it all go?
The song was originally entitled “Radio Ca Ca” in honour of a remark Roger Taylor’s son made while listening to a not very good record on the radio in Los Angeles (Taylor discreetly does not say which record it was). In other words, “Radio Shit.” But this mutated, as things often do, to its better-known title, one strong enough to inspire the stage name of an Italian-American performer who at this stage will not yet be born for almost two years; and it is a pretty heavy burden of irony that the song carries – a response, or companion, to “Video Killed The Radio Star,” it is a plea for music and radio not to be swept away by pointless videos, issued under the name of the act who, more than anybody else, had set the ball rolling for the music video to conquer “music” and indeed “radio” some eight-and-a-half years previously.
For a supposedly futuristic record, everything about “Radio Ga Ga” looks backwards – to the twenties for the Metropolis-inspired video (which, with its river of uniformly raised hands, became an MTV staple), to the thirties and forties for its lyric, with its mentions of the Mercury Theater’s War Of The Worlds and paraphrasing of Churchill’s “finest hour,” even to earlier in the eighties – 1981 in particular; the hiccupping Roland Jupiter-8/drum machine pattern which burps into action in the gaps between chorus and verse is highly reminiscent of “White Car In Germany” by the Associates, while the vocoder recalls “O Superman” rather more readily than it does Sparky’s Magic Piano.
Another irony lay in the fact that Radio 1 adored the record; kept at number two behind the banned “Relax,” the station treated it as though it were the actual number one (an irony which certainly wouldn’t have been lost on Freddie Mercury, who I’d wager absolutely adored “Relax”). And yet, despite all of this, the song is a strangely moving one; the electro-leanings which had made themselves apparent during Hot Space were now fully formed, and Mercury sings with the song rather than soaring over its crossbar. The bridge’s whole-tone modulations lend an air of the world closing down, and of a glittery goodbye to it – May’s distant guitar, still crying (or sleepwalking) for Hank Marvin, is probably his least typical playing on any Queen record – and in some ways, “Radio Ga Ga” plays like the last record you’d ever hear on any radio; bear in mind that it is 1984, and that the world could still end at any second.
If there’s a tendency in 1984 British pop, it’s for people who are unhappy with who they are. Consider Nik Kershaw; but maybe it’s because he’s a guitarist – indeed, he was once more or less regarded as Colchester’s own John McLaughlin (see Giles Smith’s Lost In Music for further confirmation) – and has a more inventive understanding of harmonics, but his doe-eyed snood-dominant uncertainty is so evidently superior to other contemporaries who are routinely bracketed with him. “Wouldn’t It Be Good,” not his first single but his first major hit, never quite prevents itself from being threatening (“I’d stay right there if I were you”), and the singalong chorus yearns for oblivion (“Wouldn’t it be good if we could wish ourselves away?”). He has an excellent understanding of the dynamics of a pop record, too – in conjunction with producer Peter Collins, making the first of three appearances on this record – as noted by the harmonic clash set up by the underlying heartbeat and the triumphant, or wrecked, entry of the extended guitar/brass unison figure; no wonder Miles, watching him at Live Aid on TV, dug his “changes” and wanted to make a whole album with him. “I got it bad,” he reiterates, “You don’t know how bad I got it” – yet this distress is less egotistical, and therefore more relatable, than Super Sexy Sting (who in 1985 made a cameo appearance on a Miles Davis album) being the King of Pain.
I have nothing more to add to what I previously wrote about this song, but Lena did mention its underlying shuffle and wondered how good an Al Green cover version would be.
The “Jazz” Revival
Did it really happen, or was it only ever dreamt in a Wardour Street doorway? All I remember was that the eighties British “jazz” revival had very little to do with jazz, and everything to do with clothes, looks and style. Therefore stalwart improvisers who had been keeping the torch burning since the sixties, but who were unfortunate enough to come on stage dressed like electricians, were laughed at, discredited and in some cases exiled from finding work, while mouthy nonentities had their bullshit jive magnified in most monthly magazines of the period, including, I’m afraid to say, The Wire. It was indeed depressing to observe, month after month, some sharp-suited turkey blether on about their feeble music and how jazz needed a kick up the backside and how they were going to deliver it, somebody you knew would be dropped by a major label after one 200-selling LP which did its best to sound as little like jazz as possible. Or the late and very great Graham Collier, writing to City Limits to point out elementary errors in a piece on jazz that had been published, only to be sneered at by a hack of no importance, someone who, frankly, wasn’t fit to micturate on Mr Collier’s shoes (and yes, I remember the names, and no, I’m not going to print them here).
Anyway, apart from a few worthy entrants – Sadé most obviously, but also the early Everything But The Girl, and Working Week (before they, or their record company, decided to ditch most of the jazz players in the group and become a boring retro-soul band instead) – it was all, and only, about style, and bloody Serge Clerc illustrations and I don’t know what else (the Style Council’s Café Bleu confirms quite disastrously that jazz isn’t punk; its “jazz” does not swing, the horn players sound stilted and under-experienced, and the overall impression is one of closing soundtracks to fifties French beach comedies; live audiences were instantly baffled). Interestingly, both Matt Bianco and Carmel were groups which subsequently became far more successful on the Continent than at home – in France, Carmel remain a name band to this day – so I presume that the absence of a style-obsessed music press worked more in their favour.
“Get Out Of Your Lazy Bed” is like a spiky late sixties French cartoon of jazz, everything sped up insanely, Basia’s wordless vocals multiplied into Theresa Bazar chorales (no wonder Trevor Horn loved the record, another Peter Collins production), supersonic piano triplets and Ronnie Ross playing the same baritone solo that he had done on “Walk On The Wild Side.” As the group arose from the ashes of Blue Rondo Á La Turk, however, you could play a tortoise-and-hare kind of game with them and Modern Romance.
Carmel was a trio, singer Carmel McCourt (from Lincoln, but by now based in Manchester) plus rhythm section, and “More, More, More” is spirited enough, if somewhat monodimensional; as with “Lazy Bed,” the production tricks (Mike Thorne, who also produced Soft Cell – how much would this record have profited from the addition of “Soul Inside”? Or would it have just put everybody off buying it?) are mainly there to mask the predominance of a riff, or a hook, over a song as such. McCourt gives it plenty – in Amy terms, her vocal points more forward to Duffy than it does to Winehouse – and the horns are given a few things to do, but there is no real sense of climax or release; it repeats over and over and fades when it, or the listener, gets bored. As did the “hipsters” when they moved on to Rare Groove and jazz was left to fend for itself. As it had been doing anyway.
One of two Madness songs on this record, and, as I’m sure Madness are tired of having people point out, this isn’t a song about Michael Caine (even though he himself appears, at the behest of his daughter who insisted that he couldn’t turn Madness down). Its roots were in the torture scene in The IPCRESS File, where Caine’s Harry Palmer struggles to remain sane by repeating, over and over: “My name is Harry Palmer.”
No, “Michael Caine,” blessed with divine Robert Wyatt/“Bogus Man”-era Roxy Music chord changes, is about an IRA informer, someone placed in compulsory exile, someone who realises that they have no life left, nor even any real identity (“He can’t remember his own name”). It heralded an even more sombre (and perhaps madder?) Madness, and it remains a terrific piece of dark pop, marred only by then-obligatory, NME-pleasing Soulful, Passionate and Honest backing vocals.
And, like so many things on Then Play Long over this period – particularly the bass-playing, and its relationship to drums and harmony – the song would not have sounded out of place in the mid-nineties repertoire of Blur.
Just as fifteen years previously the Scaffold achieved the Christmas number one with a rueful novelty of a reminder of the debris which the spirit of the Beatles had left behind in its predetermined wreckage, a socialist theatrical troupe ascended to the top over the Christmas of 1983 with a strange postscript to the first wave of New Pop. "Only You" had been Yazoo's first and biggest hit back in that sacred spring of 1982, proving to those whose minds were sufficiently blunted to request proof of things clearly evident that "electronics" and "soul" could mix and live together, a decade after Sly, Stevie, Timmy Thomas et al had conclusively demonstrated the same premise. And the Flying Pickets - whose name itself proved achingly appropriate in light of the impending miners' strike - offer something of a baleful farewell to a closing era.
The vocal arrangement, which may or may not have been Fairlight-assisted – the group insists that it wasn’t - is ingenious and lead singer Brian Hibberd's doleful voice works well with the dissolute, abandoned lyric ("Wonder if you understand/It's just the touch of your hand/Behind the closed door") even if he can't bend his voice in the same confidential/despairing way as Moyet's. No doubt due to producer John Sherry, all the harmony vocals sound as though fed through a shredder, such as Hibberd at times sounds as though stranded in a bleak hall of mirrors. It stands as a requiem for something bigger than pop; the group’s very name is one of the few explicit references on this record to the miners’ strike, which was now under way. Their "Only You" acts as a closing chapter to both 1983 and to the first act of New Pop - but, as we shall see later on this record, a bloody last-ditch retaliation was imminent.
If any record were to follow the hard act (ouch) that was "Relax" then it had to be one about nuclear war - well, that one will follow in a little while, but in the meantime politics are kept to the forefront in the only single to make the British and American top three by the same artist in different languages. Americans opted for the original German "99 Luftballons" whose guttural-verging-on-guttate enthusiasm fits the tone of the song rather better than the clumsy English adaptation.
"99 Red Balloons" strives to be ambitious; the drifting, out-of-tempo, New Age synth-dominated intro and outro, then extended interludes of jittery Euro-electrofunk mutating - and well I remember being irritated by the little head-down/body-in jog that Nena did on TOTP as the drums sped up - into Blondie-style Noo Wave with which Nena valiantly strives to maintain control of breath. Essentially the song is a slightly implausible metaphor about Nena and her mate buying the titular balloons out of "a little toy shop/with the money we've got" (it must have been a fair amount if they could afford 99 balloons) then "set them free at the break of dawn" (money well spent) on some unaccountable hippy notion. Naturally the military mistake said clump of balloons (which miraculously stay together as one unit despite having been let go "one by one") for a nuclear weapon (it's the easiest of mistakes to make). Cue Armageddon, as heralded by the unforgettable "Worry worry super-scurry!/Call the troops out in a hurry!"
At the end Nena is left standing alone "in this dust that was a city" except that she adopts an absurd Nashville twang to sing "I'm standin' pretty" just so that she can have something to rhyme with "city" - but how has she managed to survive alone, unscathed by bomb blasts or radiation? Never mind; the metaphor is intact - she finds the one remaining red balloon (also miraculously untouched) and lets it go (cue guitar sliding up into the heavens) even though some might point out that that kind of prank was what caused the problem in the first place.
I'm doubtless being far too cynical for the song's own good; it was 1984, the fear of abruptly being incinerated in a nuclear war was, as I have already said, a real and palpable one, and in the face of transatlantic Star Wars idiocy (Reagan, not Lucas), "99 Red Balloons" does form a modest canoe of ideological resistance, even if, like "San Francisco" in 1967, it never actually changed anything. But these were harder times demanding a harder response - and the one which came that summer perhaps makes Nena's balloons seem unfeasibly woolly. Still, as an example of 1967 speaking to and scolding the present age, it does foresee, of all implausible metaphors, CBS labelmate Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song.”
Unshakeable American Optimism
It cannot be coincidental that the chinks of light on this album are mainly provided by America; they provide a very useful and welcome contrast to the encroaching darkness that is otherwise apparent. I also think it deliberate that Abram followed up “99 Red Balloons” – the world has ended, how much darker can things get? – with “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” (not “Wanna” as the sleeve mistakenly has it) wherein Cyndi Lauper, erstwhile singer with Blue Angel, loved and acknowledged by nobody in Britain save Ray Lowry at the NME, in 1981 (and when “Girls” came out here, Lowry was back in the NME singles column saying, with much justification, nyah nyah I told you so), thrusts herself to the foreground with goofy bubblegum which doubles up as proto-girl punk anthem. “Somebody take a beautiful girl,” cries Lauper, “and hide her away from the rest of the world.” She spits all that boys’ club crap out and claims the song, originally written in 1979 by a man from a man’s point of view (one Robert Hazard, who I understand was none too pleased with Lauper’s modifications), for her own, popcorn synthesiser bleeping a rippling jackpot behind her. Had it not been up against “Relax” it would have been a more than worthy number one – and, at the time, the song (and its parent album, She’s So Unusual) was way ahead of what Madonna was attempting. Indeed, with its reference to "a walk in the sun," the song's aspirations unite it to Springsteen's "Born To Run," a record made available not long before "Bohemian Rhapsody."
“Break My Stride” is really nothing more than a jaunty and slightly old-fashioned trot through the positivity allotment – rhyming “rocky” with “cocky” indeed! – but its straight-faced hopefulness is enough here to postpone apocalypse, at the very least; New Yorker Wilder never had another hit to match it and moved on to writing and producing for others, the latter most notably on No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom. Whereas “Breakin’ Down” is a wonderful early 1984 spring cleaner of a club hit, organic and enticing, with thrillingly interacting brass and percussion lines and a bravura vocal from Julia Nixon; enough to make one wish that flesh and blood were still palpable features of contemporary pop.
If indeed these songs are assembled in a specific order for a specific reason, then it is logical to assume that at least some of them interact in some way. Ullman’s Madness cover – she too is singing a man’s song from a woman’s perspective, but the angle is acutely different – isn’t nearly well known enough; David Bedford’s strings and brass swoop across the picture like disappointed vultures. Once again, Peter Collins produced; Mark Bedford of Madness played bass; Neil Kinnock appeared in the video; and Ullman sounds, of all people, like a female Robert Wyatt. But this could be the same woman to whom Tom Bailey is desperately trying to hold on in “Hold Me Now.”
I Like To Watch TV On My Own Every Now And Then
There was The Boys From The Blackstuff, and there was Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, in which the plight of Thatcher’s non-working class was examined for its comedic potential. It made stars out of Jimmy Nail, Timothy Spall and Kevin Whately, and via one of its other actors there is even a direct familial link to entry #990. Unable to find work in Britain, they go to work on a building site in Dusseldorf, the home of Kraftwerk; cue multiple hilarious mishaps and state-of-the-nation banter somewhat below the level of the same writers’ Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? a decade earlier. The theme tune, co-written and produced by old hand David Mackay and performed by the 43-year-old Liverpudlian Joe Fagin, is a theme tune stretched out with some difficulty to just under three minutes, with much reference to “the dames,” “the wife” and generally having manly fun. I do not think the show would be thinkable now.
Ghosts From The Seventies
Veterans from the days of Disco Fever, “I Gave You My Heart” was Hot Chocolate’s last original (i.e. not reissued or remixed) hit single. Chart stalwarts since 1970, this song sounded like their boat was sailing out too far to sea to be rescued and there is no real reason why it should have made #13, let alone be featured here; Mickie Most is still producing but both song and performance are so anaemic that one is tempted to ring for a blood transfusion; 1983’s “Tears On The Telephone,” a record made under the very considerable influence of ABC, proved that they still had a few ideas up their sleeve if pushed, but “I Gave You My Heart” – a song written by Richard Gower, the singer with Racey - really sounds like they are giving up the ghost; half cod-Motown, half very reluctant reggae, Errol Brown sounding as though he is struggling to stay awake.
After the gleaming nowness of the American contributions, it is perhaps significant that the final three songs on side two sound as though they might as well have come from the 1975 charts; White is probably best known for his early eighties membership of Thin Lizzy and his long-term involvement with Pink Floyd, and then Roger Waters, as a backing guitarist. He sang and played guitar on “Bird Of Paradise,” by some margin his best-known song, and it sounds melancholy and vaguely hurt, if not philosophical; his guitar sings what he cannot, and before we know it we are listening to a memorial for the still living Peter Green.
There has to be more to 1984 pop life, the implication goes, than this.
The Reaction (I)
“I put on my clothes again, behind the screen. My hands are shaking. Why am I frightened? I’ve crossed no boundaries, I’ve given no trust, taken no risk, all is safe. It’s the choice that terrifies me. A way out, a salvation.”
(Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, Chapter Eleven)
In all ways, it had to come. 18 months after New Pop had peaked, and there was scant evidence of any triumph. The Top 40 had retreated into what John Peel contemptuously dubbed “a Radio 2 chart” full of soothing platitudes, safe novelties and the decaying colours and ribbons which was all New Pop seemed to mean to a lot of people (Peel again, on TOTP, December 1983: “Isn’t it great that Billy Joel has two singles in the top ten?” he snarled to camera through teeth never more earthily gritted). Against this, there was the indie tugboat of resistance – New Order, the Cocteau Twins, the Fall and of course the Smiths – but still there was the urge for a more pronounced reaction.
It was only too fitting that the eleventh hour cavalry charge of New Pop – or its last explicit stand – should be led by its principal sonic architect and chief critical cheerleader. Morley had locked horns with Horn in the NME back in 1980, at the time of “Video Killed The Radio Star”; he was none too impressed and deemed Buggles “the dustbinmen of pop.” But two years later Dollar and ABC had come to pass, and suddenly the two men, again in the NME, found themselves to be on the same side. With New Pop in freefall, as fully and carelessly as George Michael’s spilled drink into the swimming pool in the video for “Club Tropicana,” it was natural that the two should go into battle.
Unless you were there and sympathetic at the time, it is difficult to convey how devastatingly important that first Art Of Noise EP was. As the autumn of 1983 approached it genuinely did feel that pop music was finished; all that remained were ageing MoR matinee idols from a spent previous era, lapsed prog-rockers convincing themselves that they were New Popists, and the dying embers of the few real New Popists still slugging it out. A letter in the NME of the period complained that the Top 40 was “physically painful to listen to” with only three good records (two of which were by New Order).
So Into Battle With The Art Of Noise appeared as a modest laser beam of deliverance. Although the genesis was Horn’s team experimenting with samples and outtakes from the Duck Rock sessions, those Zulu voices can be heard as far back as the summer of 1982, buried within the glittering mausoleum of Dollar’s “Videotheque.” And yet the found sounds, somewhere in a teasing triangle between Morton Subotnick, Raymond Scott and Joe Meek (do you Hear A New World in “Beat Box”?), were stretchy and playful as pop hadn’t been for some time; the moves were unpredictable, the tactics (both musically and philosophically) were alluring, and in “Moments In Love” something considerably more.
At the “climax” of the latter we can hear 16 rpm moans from a vaguely hoarse voice. That was the slowed-down voice of Holly Johnson…and Frankie Goes To Hollywood were ZTT’s next move. When the first ZTT promotional ads appeared in the music press it was impossible not to be instantly thrilled, not to want to go and investigate all of these promising new horizons of music and art (even though Propaganda and Anne Pigalle were as yet unrecorded). Frankie Goes To Hollywood were a curious choice for a launch, though, I felt at the time; I had heard them in session on Janice Long’s Radio 1 show without paying much attention – sticky-backed Scouse punk-funk not quite startling enough to emerge out of studium, though it was a reasonably logical, if not outrageously illogical (which was really what was needed), development from Johnson’s previous band Big In Japan (which also harboured two further number one artists of future importance) – and couldn’t quite see what, if anything, Horn could get out of them. As unpromising a project as taking on a fast-fading MoR teenpop duo in 1981…
5. Quiet Dawn
“Relax” was released on Hallowe’en 1983; I bought it on the Wednesday, in both 7” and 12” editions (already I wanted not to miss a second of this second Futurism of Zang Tuum Tumb). I noted immediately that the 12” had almost nothing to do with the song as it stood on the 7”; instead it manipulated and modified the underlying rhythm through a fascinating if marathon thirty-one minutes of stealth funk which could have emerged straight from Cabaret Voltaire’s 2 x 45 – no doubt that was the intention. Value for money. The root 7” sounded good too, colourful and surprising, big without being smugly suffocating – but even then I knew that whatever real power the record possessed was unlikely to reveal itself unless or until it became a big hit. Out in the fields of Left it would become lost.
6. Slow Burn Necessitating Accelerator
For the first couple of months of its existence, “Relax” heeded its own advice and took its time selling; it was getting plenty of radio play and selling solidly and consistently but was feeling its way up the chart by only one or two places per week. Despite the numerous plaudits Into Battle was likewise proving a stubborn seller, and there was a very real worry that not only would “Relax” be swallowed up in the Christmas market but that the entire ZTT project might capsize as a result.
Some favours were called in, and the band appeared on Channel 4’s The Tube just before Christmas in full flourish, complete with girls, bondage and a total absence of ambiguity about what “when you wanna come” and “when you wanna suck it to it” might mean. Compared to, say, Paul Young or the Thompson Twins it was remarkably strong stuff for a teatime audience, but it generated enough interest in the group and the single – in combination with the traditionally low level of post-Christmas record sales – to propel “Relax” to number 35 in the first chart of 1984; into the Top 40 and therefore eligible for the racks of Woolworths and the studios of TOTP.
7. Cant Come
And then there was the slow realisation and the less-than-slow reactionism. In those days the Top 40 was issued on Tuesday lunchtime, and Radio 1, keen to exploit the chart’s centrality to the station’s existence, ran it thrice; live on the Tuesday lunchtime show, then again on Tuesday teatime (Peter Powell casting a more critical eye on the list) and lastly on Mike Read’s breakfast show on Wednesday morning. Despite having played it regularly and enthusiastically for the best part of two months, while counting down the Top 40 on the morning of Wednesday 4 January, Read suddenly experienced a Damascean revelation, realised what “Relax” was actually about (as though the single cover alone couldn’t have given it away), spluttered some disgusted outrage and refused to play it. Initially Read went it alone in this regard, but over the next few days Radio 1 opted to ban it from the station altogether. However, their TOTP performance had already been recorded, and it went out on that Thursday’s programme – there were no girls or bondage, but the impact remained murderously explosive and revelatory. Whipped up (so to speak) by the inevitable press brouhaha, “Relax” was suddenly on a roll; in the following week’s chart it had leapt to number six (I note incidentally that Channel 4 were at the time running the first properly networked rerun of The Prisoner on British television). The next week it was at number two behind “Pipes Of Peace,” and there was a repeat of the “God Save The Queen” frisson – would The Powers That Were conspire to keep it off the top? But that was not to be; on the day before my twentieth birthday “Relax” became an unqualified number one, allegedly outselling the rest of that week’s Top 20 combined. The silence on the various Top 40 shows and on TOTP was deafening and profound.
8. Radio One Cant…Or Could They?
By the beginning of 1984 Radio 1 were in an embarrassing position; explicitly set up in 1967 to cater for the teenage fans of the then newly-outlawed pirate radio, they had now settled into a junior cardigan version of Radio 2, and their controller of the time, Derek Chinnery, was keen to push Radio 1 to an even more upmarket – and more middle-aged, and certainly richer – audience. In an interview conducted with the Slow Dazzle fanzine in 1984, Peel complained bitterly about having his four weekly evening shows cut to three, and quoted Chinnery as saying that Peel’s show was fit only for hoodlums and undesirables. It’s a wonder that he stayed with Radio 1, but he did; meanwhile, as the new wave of pirate radio began to explode in London, highlighting the soul, rap and electro music which mainstream radio was still strenuously avoiding – the young Tim Westwood being among the broadcasters in question – the BBC’s hat continued to look progressively older and shabbier. In that same interview, Peel also cited Chinnery’s desire to cater for “young professionals in the car on their way home from the theatre or to the restaurant who want to listen to something familiar like…Kenny Rogers.” Thus, to a degree, the preponderance of dreary, nullifying MoR in the charts of the period. It seemed that everything was being neutralised.
9. Come Cant
Of course the BBC, as we now know, were also hoist by their own hypocritical petard with the “Relax” debacle. Nearly all of their daytime DJs indulged in ooh-ing and aah-ing and cor-ing at Page Three models and nudity and comeliness in general; Steve Wright in particular revelled in “makes you feel like…making love” sub-Barry Whiteisms when spinning the latest Lionel Richie or Al Jarreau hot, hip platter for the valium-stricken housewives who were his core audience. And, as with The Sun, having frothed at the collective mouth, they then proceeded to mock open mouths of outrage when presented with the real thing (here I paraphrase what Julie Burchill pointed out in the NME at the time). Their embarrassment and stupidity were made all the more profound by the fact that commercial radio gleefully continued to play “Relax” – and that was reflected in their relative ratings.
10. Real Thing
Because “Relax” was unavoidably and inevitably the Real Thing; an explicit and gleeful celebration of gay sex. At last, after the decades of coded messages in “Secret Love” or “Have I The Right?” or “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” after an era of New Pop where even Boy George and Marc Almond were obliged to be all coy and ambiguous about their sexuality, here it was, out in the open, unashamed and loud, with its hardcore on-the-beat beat, its pauses and liquid explosions placed for deliberate maximum impact. It took the emerging hi-NRG boom (taking the recent innovations of Bobby “O” and others into account) and made it pop, and nearly every important hi-NRG record to emerge in the Britain of 1984 had to acknowledge either “Relax” and/or “Blue Monday” (even as the dancefloors of such places as Fire Island in Edinburgh were already that summer mutating the hi-NRG template in tandem with this strange new electronic music that was beginning to emerge from Chicago).
Tom Robinson had made the Top 20 in 1978 with “Glad To Be Gay” but a typically timid EMI hid it away as part of an EP and another track, the straightforward rocker “Don’t Take No For An Answer,” was promoted to and played on radio as the assumed lead track. But, as I said, after “Relax” there could be no more hiding. By the summer of 1984 leading hi-NRG divas such as Hazell Dean and Evelyn Thomas had crossed over to become chart regulars – and more vitally, the likes of Bronski Beat (politically) and Divine (hardcore-ly) were now getting major hits and opening things up in a way that would have been unthinkable even six months previously.
12. Mess Aesthetics
From its opening Olympian call to arms (in both senses) via its relentlessly doubling drumming to its crucial final pause before the two explosions – the first the loudest Horn had ever sounded, and then the second to soundtrack the actual coming with its quadrupling drumbeat (Holly’s murmur, Rutherford’s “HEY!” and then BANG!!), closed by Holly’s satisfied, triumphant, echoing purr of “COME!” “Relax” sounded and still sounds magnificent and magisterial, especially when you couldn’t hear it on the chart rundown; excluded perhaps less on account of scandal than for fear of shaming its (mostly) rightly-humbled contemporaries – its worthiest competitor was the abovementioned “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” in its way of cheerful garish even more subversive than “Relax” (it should be noted that both Cyndi Lauper and Madonna made their UK chart debuts in the same week of January 1984). It is clear that Horn pulled out that extra ounce of forthright power with a purposive view to making “Relax” the unanswerable answer to the New Pop crisis. This was the record everybody had to beat…including, eventually, Horn and Frankie themselves…and, as Morley later commented in one of his innumerable Frankie ad campaigns, they made much of the rest of pop appear small and petty.
13. The Killing Of Pop
And yet, if “Relax” was the saviour of pop, it also dealt the notion of the pop single its fatal blow. Rarely satisfied with final mixes, and taking a direct lead from Brian Wilson in this respect, Horn endlessly tinkered with the mix of “Relax” so that the standard version, which appears on this album, is different from that which eventually appeared on Frankie’s own album is different from the version which appears on the cassette single is different from the endless remixes which now seeped out from Sarm West Studios. Above even the controversy, it was the remixes which helped “Relax” towards its record-breaking unbroken 37-week run on the Top 40 (in the Top 75 it managed the full 52 weeks of its year, and even then, just like “Blue Monday,” it, as it would be, came back for more); every time it seemed on the verge of slipping out of the chart, BANG! would come a new mix, and it would guiltily, or proudly, slope its way upwards again. This eventually meant that no one has really been able to agree on the “definitive” version of “Relax” and thus the abandonment of the concept of the self-contained, three-minute “definitive” single was set in motion. This had of course been on the cards since “Good Vibrations” and “Strawberry Fields,” but the advent of the 12-inch single in the ‘70s had accelerated evolution, and thus did begin to die the need for the “single” as people had known it. Some were quick to dismiss the quick-change “Relax” remixes as cynical cashing-in, but in the long term it heralded the slow passing of something hitherto vital to pop; now everything was in floatation, amenable to amendments and, ultimately, whatever shape its individual listeners wanted it to assume. Thus, perhaps, did New Pop go on to win at least part of the war. How other parts of it were fought – and to what effect – we will shortly discover.
In the context of this album, Lena commented approvingly that “Relax” was like Godzilla trampling over a poor little city (i.e. most of what precedes it on side two). In a purely metaphorical sense, I can go with that.
Love, Love, Love
Conceptualism rears its head once again; the first four songs on side three seem placed to examine love from four different perspectives. In “Here Comes The Rain Again” Annie Lennox asks that her lover treat her in the manner she expects lovers to treat their loved; Howard Jones ponders the very nature of love; Frankie say sod wondering, just DO it; and The Smiths, in their only Now appearance, approach love with a gloomy approximation of realism.
I briefly mentioned their eponymous debut album in entry #296, and it would appear that its failure to top the chart ahead of Into The Gap was in part due to Rough Trade not printing the cassette editions of the album in time; remember, the vast majority of Into The Gap’s UK sales were on cassette. Morrissey fulminates against this, as he does against many other things and people, in his Autobiography, in which he also expresses his extreme disappointment with the album as John Porter produced it. He thinks that Porter smoothed the band’s sound down such that he made them sound dull and bland, their formerly exciting and transforming songs being reduced to just another rock album. In particular he says that Porter lowered the pitch of “Reel Around The Fountain” to such a level that it bled all the enticement and otherness out of the song.
When compared with the astonishing version of the same song that the band had recorded on a John Peel session in 1983, and as subsequently included on Hatful Of Hollow, this criticism cannot be dismissed out of hand. As performed – a song which sounded about as “non-rock” as anybody had done since Joy Division – its transformative but earthbound ethereality had the potential to alter the way rock music was conceived, performed and listened to like no other rock group between Joy Division and Nirvana. It took pride in ignoring the base appeals to the monetarist, priapic purse of most of its 1983 pop contemporaries; it suggested that somehow, in some way, “we” could be above all that. Nobody else, with the arguable exception of the R.E.M. of Murmur, was producing music of this kind at the time.
Listening to daytime radio in the early eighties, however, you could have been forgiven for not even knowing that The Smiths existed, except as one of several running jokes in Steve Wright’s Radio 1 afternoon show. Unlike the Beatles – but like the Pistols – radio determinedly ignored them, viewing them as a transient embarrassment easily swept under a dubious carpet. In their lifetime, the highest singles chart position they achieved – twice – was #10. Some of this may be ascribable to Rough Trade’s clearly inadequate marketing and distribution resources, as well as what Morrissey claims was a fundamental misunderstanding of their music by Rough Trade head Geoff Travis; he says that Travis hated “How Soon Is Now?” on first listen and hence buried it on a 12-inch B-side.
But in Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey And Marr: The Severed Alliance, Porter claims that the band themselves lacked a certain spark when it came to re-recording their debut album. Re-record? They had already cut fourteen songs with Troy Tate producing, but Travis was disgruntled by the result and passed the tapes to John Porter to see whether he could rescue them. Porter decided that he could not – he felt that the music was “out of tune and out of time,” although some could well have viewed that remark as a value judgement in an age when everything had to be mathematically, pedantically correct, every note and beat methodically hammered into its “right” place.
However, Porter offered to recut the entire record, and Morrissey was initially in agreement; Johnny Marr was less enthused by the prospect but was eventually won round. Listening to The Smiths now, it is difficult to assess whether its lack of power and grace is more due to Porter’s toning down of the group’s sound and playing, or, as Porter claims, the performance of a band whose hearts really weren’t in it. In Autobiography Morrissey rails against the lowering of the pitch of “Fountain” and the addition of Paul Carrack’s keyboards, which indeed help reduce what should have been one of the most striking introductory tracks on any rock album to the level of a late seventies Van Morrison record, proficient but (largely) unexciting.
Porter, though, says that it was impossible to get the band to play above this lowered pitch, and that the final run-through sounded so plodding and interest-free that he had no choice but to call in Carrack to fill in some embarrassing spaces. Whatever did happen, the result is an underwhelming travesty, and the rest of the record mostly remains earthbound; songs like “You’ve Got Everything Now” and “Still Ill” are pale Xeroxes of what those of us who saw The Smiths on stage at the time knew they were capable of producing, as radically as their lyrics go against the grain of all other pop and rock of the period, including Frankie (sex is palpably an embarrassment for Morrissey throughout the record). The remixed and slightly extended “Hand In Glove” also lacks the spirit of the original single, turning hope into a grind. Only on the closing “Suffer Little Children” do they finally, albeit slowly, achieve lift-off and show us just how radical the rest of the record might otherwise have been. The album attracted rave reviews at the time which I think were down to wishful thinking.
Morrissey didn’t like the recorded version of “What Difference Does It Make?” at all; Mike Joyce’s drums sounded afraid to play, the attack sanded down to a mid-ground, nondescript shrug. He also couldn’t equate Rough Trade’s claims that the single had sold 250,000 copies with the record’s failure to climb beyond #12. Yet it was a more straightforward introduction to The Smiths than even “This Charming Man” had been; the relatively uncomplicated rock backing track, possibly influenced by the B-52s’ “Private Idaho,” was well received.
Actually “What Difference” is a lot better than Morrissey makes out. In a Now setting it is more the eruption of a Catherine wheel than the exploding rocket of “Relax,” but its approach is sufficiently out of kilter with the songs which surround it to make the listener sit up and pay attention. Marr, Rourke and Joyce sound as though they are thoroughly enjoying themselves – they more or less set the template here for Suede, with their glam-rock residue - and Morrissey too enjoys playing sly games on the listener (“I stole and I lied, and why? Because you asked me to!” and, later, set against a soundtrack of screaming girls “No more apologies!”) as well as offering a blunt frankness which reacted as violently against its surroundings as anything since punk – “And I’m feeling very sick and ill today” was about as radical a statement a singer could make in the keep fit and keep up at all costs anti-culture prevalent in the early eighties. After that, Morrissey soars into a joyous, or lamenting, falsetto (“Oh, my sacred one!”) as the band step up the intensity and Joyce leans on his cowbell. A pop record – more so than a rock record – such as used to be made, and played, except now as many people as possible were pretending not to listen. “What Is Love?” “What Difference Does It Make?” The sequencing must have been deliberate.
Young Businessmen Of The Year
It did seem, however, that for every Smiths or Frankie, there were five or six bands who simply didn’t get it. Fiction Factory were from Perth, and at the time one of them, drummer Mike Ogletree, had been in Simple Minds (he pops up on New Gold Dream). They had once been a ska band called The Rude Boys, but CBS demanded that they scrub up, and thus the entirely unexciting and uninvolving “(Feels Like) Heaven” – actually their second single, after their debut, “The Ghost Of Love” got nowhere. Over-glossy to migraine-inducing levels, singer, co-writer and co-producer Kevin Patterson applies his sombre, rather showband-y baritone voice to a song which really doesn’t feel like Tayport, let alone heaven, but more like a delayed, polished up Marmalade B-side. I wish that Endgames’ “Waiting For Another Chance,” a substantial Scottish hit single in 1983 which shows how well this sort of thing can work if approached properly – and involving another Simple Minds alumnus, bassist Brian McGee - had been a national hit and appeared on this record instead.
Whereas Re-Flex simply sound overblown. Since half of Level 42 and Thomas Dolby had been involved with the group in its earlier stages, they cannot be readily dismissed, but “The Politics Of Dancing” is a most unsatisfactory and confusing confabulation of pop and politics which betrays an essential misunderstanding of the intentions of New Pop; despite singer John Baxter’s sub-Bowie cries of “Get this message under-STOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD!!,” it’s questionable whether anybody did, or whether indeed there was a message in the first place. Later in 1984, Re-Flex recorded a more overtly political album entitled Humanication, one of whose songs, “How Much Longer” included Sting, no less, on backing vocals. But EMI America pulled the plug on the record, claiming it was “too political.” It would be left to Australia – and in particular Midnight Oil, with their album Blue Sky Mining – to pull off this particular fusion.
There Isn’t Any Rap Attack
As with Now 1, Michael Jackson is the elephant (man) in pop’s sitting room, but if we can’t hear from Jackson himself, how about a song which had originally been written for him? Dolby composed “Hyperactive!” with Jackson in mind to the point of sending him a demo tape. He never heard back so decided to record it himself, but knowing the song’s background should in itself be enough to distract people from the highly misleading mad scientist persona with which Dolby had been labelled in Britain, and which perhaps prevented him from becoming a bigger star in his own right; everybody in the UK knew who Dr Magnus Pyke was, and so yawned when “She Blinded Me With Science” came out, whereas Americans, who hadn’t the faintest idea who Dr Pyke was, took both song and video to their hearts; their number included Michael Jackson, who became a fan and eventually friend of Dolby.
As a record, “Hyperactive!” bursts with colour, invention and humour. Its progress is never predictable, and yet there is no attempt to be provocative for provocation’s own sake; every Fairlight brass blast, rhythmic ambiguity (punk rock drumming over a half-speed rap rhythm), trombone statement (Peter Thoms, formerly of Landscape) and change of vocal emphasis – the deep-voiced psychiatrist is Robyn Hitchcock – is entirely logical. But knowing that it was written for Jackson to sing brings a new and disturbing dimension to the song, which is about somebody who has essentially and gradually been driven insane by life. “I can reach into your homes/Like an itch in your headphones”; here the aim seems to be Jackson confronting his own listeners. “I’m the shape in your back room/I’m the breather on the ‘phone” looks forward to the increasing paranoia that we witness in Jackson’s own music from Bad onwards. Eventually, Dolby gives up the ghost and leaves the rest of the song to an anxious female singer – apparently one Louise Ulfstedt – who sounds (and I think deliberately so) a ghost for Jackson: “Hyperactive when I’m small! Hyperactive now I’ve grown! Hyperactive ‘til I’m dead and gone!” With this knowledge, the record actually becomes rather frightening. Dolby’s second album, The Flat Earth, from whence “Hyperactive!” is taken, is full of such uncertain invention; his slow-burning six-minute-plus deconstruction of Dan Hicks’ “I Scare Myself” (although Dolby probably had Barry Reynolds’ 1982 cover in mind) is worth the price of the album alone.
And If I Wish To Stop It All
Something about “Wishful Thinking” bothers me. Disturbs me, even. So peaceful and pastoral is the music, and yet so placidly unsettling. The distance lent in the triangle of string synthesiser, delicate drums and oboe reminds me strongly of something else that, in 1984, is yet to come; but what? Air (the French electronic duo, not the New York free jazz trio) might be nearest but that doesn’t quite fit either.
The song was the only UK top ten hit for China Crisis, who otherwise seemed to wander in and out of public attention rather randomly throughout the eighties. Psychic TV’s “Just Dreaming”? Again, we’re almost there but not really. The song is sung in a rather guileless Kirkby hiccup (Eddie Lundon taking a rare lead vocal) against a background more unnerving than wistful. There’s a brief nod to Elton John (“I sat on the roof”) and a haiku kind of lyric which says almost nothing but suggests that you might not wish to listen to anything further. “And if I wish to stop it all…/It’s just wishful thinking.” The stakes are perhaps higher than the manically speedy “Hyperactive!” and knowing that, fifteen years later, Kevin Wilkinson, the drummer on this record, did indeed end it all, only serves to intensify the disturbance underlying the too-smooth surface peacefulness.
The Old Rock Has Some Answers
Side four of Now II appears to be devoted to the big names, a bill-topping walk-down, as if the whole story, such as it is, is approaching boiling (over?) point, a climactic summation. This includes songs by David Bowie (who at this time definitely did not know what love was), Culture Club and Duran Duran which have already been written about here. Two strands are therefore left to address:
Rock, Rock, Roll, Plymouth Rock, Roll Over
The segue linking “Undercover Of The Night,” “Wonderland” and “Run Runaway” is inspired. “Undercover” saw the Stones, in hibernation and on tour since Emotional Rescue (Tattoo You mainly comprising revised outtakes from seventies sessions), suddenly wake up. Jagger reads Burroughs’ Cities Of The Red Night, hears “This Is Radio Clash,” watches the news and decides to stand up and say something about Central America. Keith and Ronnie keep their heads down and concentrate. Wyman and Watts link together seamlessly (although some say it was Sly and Robbie, or maybe both rhythm sections playing together; certainly multiple other auxiliary percussionists were present). Words and sounds veer in and out of crazy focus like John Robie hijacking Super Ape. Julian Cope reckoned they’d been listening to The Pop Group. Arthur Baker wasn’t involved in the production (Chris Kimsey did that) but his remix of “Too Much Blood” from the Undercover album was one of the last vital and perhaps one of the bloodiest things to come out under the Stones’ name.
Like “Speed Your Love To Me” – also produced by Steve Lillywhite – “Wonderland” is an attempt to capture, and perhaps enlarge, the fire at the heart of Scottish anxiety. Big Country are forthcoming in this tale with an album of their own, but they were always a far more direct proposition than the Minds; “Wonderland” was a stand-alone single to fill the gap between their first and second albums, and at that point their biggest hit, and although its dynamics are as powerful as anything on Sparkle In The Rain, its metaphors are much more grounded; “If you could feel/How I must feel/The winds of quiet change,” “The fifty years of sweat and tears/That never left a trace,” “You still remember other days/When every head was high/I watched that pride be torn apart” – this is the language of a Dick Gaughan, the sentiments very clear; it is a song about the reclamation of a wrecked native land, of a spirit that is unavoidably working-class; “I am an honest man,” sings Stuart Adamson, as always sounding like a Fife Gordon Lightfoot. “I am a working man.” But despite the ruination, the auld optimism holds firm and perhaps becomes stronger: “With innocence within ourselves/We sing the same old song” – and what is palpable is the stern, unflinching conviction of the group’s performance, Tony Butler’s bass and Mark Brzezicki’s drums nearly running off the map altogether towards song’s end, the firm belief that “we” can take this Scotland and make it work and live again. So in that sense “Wonderland” is not so much a rock song, more a folk prophecy.
“See the chameleon, lying there in the sun” – it might have been a commentary on Boy George. But Slade had come back, not entirely unexpectedly – it had been on the cards since 1980 – and nearly managed a second Christmas number one, ten years after their first one, with a similar message for a troubled country to pull together and not walk alone. “My Oh My” was the song in question (with its subtle nod to “Vienna”), but the follow-up “Run Runaway” was their only significant American hit single, partly due to blanket coverage of its video on MTV, but also to a revival of interest in Slade following Quiet Riot’s hit cover of “Cum On Feel The Noize.” It was one of the group’s last great rave-ups, with vintage yelling, boot-stomping, a rhythm owing something to “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” Big Country-style guitar riffs, a half-tempo Status Quo tribute in its centre, bagpipes and even, in the middle distance, Jim Lea’s frenetic violin which had not been as prominent since “Coz I Luv You.” It was as if Slade were offering up an anthology of what they did best; one last reel, one final jig, before sobering up. It was nice to see them back in a pop environment which missed them like a left shoulder.
And In The End…
It is easy to forget, or not to know, how important it still was in 1984 for a compilation album of this type to end with the words of a Beatle. The first number one of its year, its opening "one and one" of "I light a candle to our love/In love our problems disappear," with its sentimental WWI pub piano (and apposite accompanying video), clearly won over the New Year vote, but despite being essentially another in the long series of McCartney's Well-Meaning-But-Trite State Of The World addresses "Pipes Of Peace" does serve as a useful bookend for this pop year of 1984 - yes, Reader, witness the attendant irony - which proved to be the most extreme test of how far and how deeply pop and politics could mix, as well as demonstrating how far pop in itself was allowed to go, and the barriers which routinely slammed down whenever it strived to go beyond itself.
"Pipes Of Peace" is therefore a quiet prelude which runs through many of the post-Beatles Macca trademarks - a basic, loping light reggae beat (the song seems to be a partial rewrite of "C Moon") which diverts into a mock-martial rhythm (complete with the obligatory titular pipes) derived from "Let 'Em In" and flies superficially over The World - children's choir, tablas, Fairlights - as McCartney earnestly croons his slightly bizarre platitudes - "Help them to learn songs of joy instead of Burn Baby Burn" (possibly a reference to the 1974 Hudson-Ford hit, or perhaps he just remembered Lennon's equivocation on "Revolution") and a moment of classic McCartney guilelessness with the priceless couplet "Or will someone save this planet we're playing on?/Is it the only one?" which I imagine Lennon would promptly have laughed out of Abbey Road; then again, he was no longer around to do so.
Oddly enough, McCartney’s remark about “little children being born to the world” did carry an impact of which at the time he could not help but be unaware; “Pipes Of Peace” was number one on the day Calvin Harris was born. But even the song’s essential naïvety is undercut by a deadly seriousness; remember that on Now II it is a bookend, reminding us that all of this might be about to die, and do you, the listeners, really, truly want that to happen? And it, and the record, end with the unexpected but completely logical return of the closing orchestral (though by 1983 probably synthesised) figures of “The End,” almost the Beatles’ last word, before finishing on what Ian MacDonald might have called a sadly smiling E major – the final chord of “A Day In The Life,” a stairway to heaven. Given that fifteen months earlier, Abram had shown us a pathway which seemingly ended in hell (“Starmaker”), this has to be considered progress, and certainly, although not qualitatively consistent, Now II is far more emotionally rewarding a listening experience than its predecessor. But the next volume would document some of the quantum leap which this volume had been quietly anticipating.
(N.B.: The above comments on "Relax" are a slightly remixed version of the comment which I posted on Popular some time back; my essential feelings about the record haven't really changed since then.)
(N.B.: The above comments on "Relax" are a slightly remixed version of the comment which I posted on Popular some time back; my essential feelings about the record haven't really changed since then.)