Tuesday 10 June 2014


(#307: 1 December 1984, 7 weeks)

Track listing: Freedom (Wham!)/Like To Get To Know You Well (Howard Jones)/All Cried Out (Alison Moyet)/I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down (Paul Young)/Big In Japan (Alphaville)/Self Control (Laura Branigan)/Ghostbusters (Ray Parker Jnr)/Thriller (Michael Jackson)/I Feel For You (Chaka Khan)/Caribbean Queen (Billy Ocean)/Body (The Jacksons)/Just Be Good To Me (S.O.S. Band)/Let’s Hear It For The Boy (Deniece Williams)/Dr Beat (Miami Sound Machine)/Lost In Music (Sister Sledge)/Purple Rain (Prince & the Revolution)/Careless Whisper (George Michael)/Drive (The Cars)/Hard Habit To Break (Chicago)/All Through The Night (Cyndi Lauper)/Sister Of Mercy (Thompson Twins)/Skin Deep (The Stranglers)/Each And Every One (Everything But The Girl)/Smooth Operator (Sade)/Gimme All Your Lovin’ (ZZ Top)/Jump (Van Halen)/Footloose (Kenny Loggins)/Apollo 9 (Adam Ant)/Modern Girl (Meat Loaf)/Some Guys Have All The Luck (Rod Stewart)/Teardrops (Shakin’ Stevens)/Hole In My Shoe (neil)

With the Now franchise approaching its first anniversary, it was inevitable that other record companies were going to have ideas of their own. In particular the relevant people at CBS would have spoken with the relevant people at WEA and come up with the following agreement: we could do this ourselves. And so, with the assistance of Arista and, to a lesser extent, Jive Records, the Hits series, the chief rival to Now, came into being.

In format and presentation – although track selections would sometimes be a different matter – Hits records were never as self-consciously hip as Now ones, and with the first Hits collection there is a certain degree of throwback to Ronco and K-Tel days, although the minimal chart-centred information on each song (“This single is the boys’ third consecutive No 1 to date,” it says of “Freedom”) derives from the Now template. Neither was there any postmodern jiggery pokery about TV advertising; The Hits Album (or, if you owned a Walkman, The Hits Tape) was publicised with sober graphics and an even more sober Kid Jensen voiceover.

The concentration here appears to have centred on the music selected, and in comparison, Now 4 had no chance; although it actually ended up outselling Now II, it had to settle for second place in the Christmas listings, the only one of the first thirteen volumes not to top the chart. In terms of power and impact, the record could not compete with The Hits Album; its thirty-two selections were, for the most part, curiously timid and underwhelming, as though EMI and Virgin had had to make do and mend with the leftovers CBS/WEA didn’t want.

The Hits Album boasted three number ones (two of which were, effectively, by Wham!), but Now 4 had just the one, namely Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” the closing song of a year-old album. In addition, tracks you would have thought would have been shoo-ins – “Blue Jean,” “Wild Boys,” “Love’s Great Adventure” – are absent. On some pressings the opening “No More Lonely Nights” was the uptempo version. Instead of “The Riddle” we get “Human Racing.” There are pleasantries which I really don’t need to hear again (“Together In Electric Dreams,” “Never Ending Story,” “Shout To The Top”). Songs like “Doctor! Doctor!” and “Somebody’s Watching Me” appeared belatedly and slightly shamefacedly, as though they had been recycled Now 3 rejects. The Big Country and U2 songs are better heard in the context of their respective albums. Some of the songs inherit a crypt beyond abysmal (“The War Song,” “Passengers,” “Too Late For Goodbyes”). The Hits Album had “Thriller”; Now 4 could only counter with the watery, archival “Farewell My Summer Love” (and Jackson’s not very subliminal appearance on “Somebody’s Watching Me,” the missing link between “Nowhere To Run” and “Party Rock Anthem”). There were good songs which weren’t especially big hits (“The Second Time,” “Warning Sign,” “Sunset Now,” “Tesla Girls”) and a lot more boring ones. Which leaves Bronski Beat’s righteously, rightfully angry “Why?” (stick to The Age Of Consent), Level 42’s “Hot Water” – much more about them later on in this tale - the Eurythmics’ boneheaded but daftly lovable “Sexcrime (Nineteen Eighty-Four)” and the record’s one work of genius, Malcolm McLaren’s “Madam Butterfly,” the latter again better heard in its full-length 12-inch or album version. Wary of repeating the misfired “Victims” coup of Now 1, the album passes on using its sequel, “The Power Of Love,” as a pre-emptive finale, preferring to dribble out with Eugene Wilde’s creepy “Gotta Get You Home Tonight” (“A bottle of Dom Perignon/To get us in the mood” – look out! He’s got a head in the fridge!).

Although two of The Hits Album’s thirty-two songs did not make the Top 40 – and one of these did not even make the Top 75 – the overall picture that the record presents is a far more confident and coherent, and even healthier, one. The cover graphics of Now 4 are congested and confused; The Hits Album’s design is streamlined but effective. I don’t think the record’s success was solely down to this, however. I think that it may have been due to a slow but subtle sea change in where the most interesting pop music was (again) beginning to come from. A moving back of the pendulum from Britain to America. And we have to ask ourselves why this had happened.

In stark contrast to Now II, just over half of The Hits Album’s songs – seventeen out of thirty-two, a working majority – are performed by American artists, with just fourteen British, or British-based acts present (plus one act from Germany); this latter total includes British-based multinational acts (Thompson Twins, Sade), Rod Stewart, who had been based in the USA since 1975, and the Trinidadian Billy Ocean, whose “Caribbean Queen” topped the Billboard chart before becoming a hit here. One of the Hits series’ express marketing points was that it offered the big American hits by big American acts that just didn’t find their way onto Now compilations.

But, having listened to the double album anew, I think that was only part of the attraction. For there is a fundamental difference in attitude between the British and American songs represented here which suggested that as 1984 reached its end, American pop had once again seized the initiative (one of the subtexts of The Hits Album is: we’re so big, we don’t even NEED to put Madonna on here – although at this stage Madonna was not quite, yet, a superstar). It is true that the unexpectedly strong chart performance of many hitherto unimaginable American hits in our charts over this period could be ascribed to greater exposure on British music television of the period.

However, as I said, there is a key difference in approach as well as attitude, and it is noticeable that Wham!, the most successful British act here (by late 1984 standards), tend towards the American sense of assurance and confidence in their presentation, although in lyrical terms their songs are a lot darker than some other British ones which appear here. However, the darkness which was beginning to overcome British chart pop of the period was a stifling and suffocating one, describing dank, cramped corners of rancour, resentment, endurance and entitlement. Whereas the Americans here tend to throw open the curtains and windows and say, to hell with it, let the LIGHT in.

The British Picture

Wham! begin the record, sounding sprightly and triumphant, even though “Freedom” is really neither (“Can’t you see I’m HURTIN’, baby?” cries George Michael halfway through as if he’d just opened his Christmas presents). But it was better than shuffling in semi-darkness (the version on this record is discreetly faded early), although in a way the rest of the record under consideration could be interpreted as a set of various and varying responses to what Michael’s protagonist has done.

The British problem begins to make itself evident with “Like To Get To Know You Well,” a song which Howard Jones performed on TOTP by shaking hands with everybody in the audience, in the manner of Ted Rogers descending the stairs at the beginning of each episode of 3-2-1. The song, according to the single sleeve, was “Dedicated to the original spirit of the Olympic Games” (which were happening, in Los Angeles, in 1984, and which had been boycotted by the Soviet Union) and while I agree quite fervently with a lot of what Jones sings – particularly the need to talk about the future when so many people “like to linger on the past” – the midtempo reggae setting, the synthesised steel drums and the downbeat chord changes which occur throughout give the song a downbeat, prematurely defeatist feel, as though the singer knows his ideal is bound to fail.

One common strategy in British pop of the period was to sing extremely bitter songs which could be about a no-good lover but were more likely to bear an anti-Thatcher subtext. I won’t say too much about “All Cried Out” or “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” here as I’ll be looking at their parent albums very soon, but the former is “I Will Survive” with an added twist (for further development of this lyrical theme, see Cher’s “I Found Someone”) and the latter is an old Ann Peebles song consigned to an extremist madhouse – and neither seems to be about the cheating heart of a would-be lover, but an attack on a bigger and less avoidable picture.


In case you were wondering, “Big In Japan” was indeed named after the band which once included Holly Johnson and Bill Drummond, and its video was directed by Dieter Meier, so we have to take it seriously. With Marian Gold’s forlorn vocal and imagery of the order of “Crystal bits of snowflakes all around my head and in the wind” and “I will wait here for my man tonight,” together with the sliver of pain present in the line “You did what you did to me,” it is best to look upon this rather ominous song as a link between “Perfect Day” and “The Safety Dance.”

They Live By Night (1)

This is where she go-goes when she doesn’t wake you up. Laura Branigan’s two major British hits were anglicised readings of Italian songs, both co-written by one Giancarlo Bigazzi. 1982’s “Gloria” appeared to be a musical portrayal of the Gena Rowlands character in Cassavetes’ A Woman Under The Influence. But “Self Control,” a midtempo hi-NRG favourite much admired by the Pet Shop Boys, went a lot further; its video was extremely disturbing, and so is the song itself – despite English lyricist Steve Piccolo rhyming “matters” with “matters,” Branigan sings about  the kind of woman that the “Total Eclipse” Bonnie Tyler really wants to be; out at night, living for the night, its fucking and its total abnegation of responsibility, even when the desire appears to turn and fight her back (“I…I haven’t got the will to try and fight”). She tries to make herself believe that this life is what she wants, but is nowhere near convinced.

Sullivan’s Travels

What’s the age old remedy for all this bleak anguish? Why, to laugh at the night, and indeed at death. Part “Pop Muzik,” part “I Want A New Drug,” part “Anti-Thriller,” Parker was commissioned to write the theme song for the movie (after first choice Lindsey Buckingham had turned the producers down) and, with only a few days’ notice, was baffled about how to proceed until he saw a television commercial and the song clicked into place. It may well be that the song is recalled ahead of the (excellent) movie, but its genius lies in playing with Numan alienation for laughs (“I ain’t ‘fraid of no GHOST!”) as well as dispersing all kinds of socio-political subtexts (“An invisible man/Sleepin’ in your bed”). Its title shoutout was the best and most happily defiant pop chant of the eighties; in addition to movie footage, the video featured everybody from Peter Falk to Al Franken shouting out The Word. As Dan Aykroyd had originally planned the movie as a Blues Brothers sequel, we can safely assume that the song also stands as a fuck-you memorial to John Belushi; are we going to take this lying down indeed. "Bustin' makes me FEEL good!" Quite.

Genius Segue

“Ghostbusters” into “Thriller” is quite inspired. It’s odd looking at Michael on the Hits Album sleeve, standing around and smiling, hands in jacket pockets, like he was still just some regular guy from Indiana. But here’s the rub; “Thriller” was, by the end of 1984, two years old, and it had been a year since the video had come out and the single had been a hit. But, unlike some of the selections on Now 4, its inclusion doesn’t feel jarring or out of place. It feels right, and moreover the triumphalism of CBS/WEA in going places that EMI/Virgin wouldn’t is equalled by the supremely arrogant assumption that buyers of this record would – it went without saying – already own Thriller. Hence we don’t even mind when the edit here fades on the ascending organ, without the Vincent Price talkover, which if anything makes the song even more baffling and disturbing.

“We’re DANCING to a new mutant strain!” (Penman)

At last...a pop record which actually sounds like 1984, as opposed to a digitally reprocessed 1954. I note the rather fractious Green Gartside who was interviewed in The FACE back in 1988, angrily denying that Arif Mardin had any influence on Cupid And Psyche '85, claiming that the songs existed in that form as demos and that Mardin was merely an "avuncular" presence useful to have around the room. Perhaps he had his own defences to keep fortified at the time. Still, if those demos were done with David Gamson and Fred Maher, then the influence worked both ways, as "I Feel For You" colourfully demonstrates; and of course the biggest of Scritti's three 1984 hits was "Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)," a sly jibe at the epidemic of post-New Pop pretend-soul but also an underlying tribute to someone whose potential was most fully brought out by...Arif Mardin.

But Mardin always had a keen eye for new trends and an astute mind to magnify and develop them. A decade previously he had rejuvenated another shadowy British-based avant-pop group, the Bee Gees, bringing them into a strutting nowness whose short-fuse beats and staccato vocals predicate Cupid And Psyche to a startling degree (revisit 1974’s Mardin-produced, hit-free Mr Natural if you doubt me). And it was also Mardin who had been behind "I'm Every Woman" and other slices of Chaka Khan divinity such as "I Know You, I Live You" - and he knew how to give her a hit when, as in 1984, she needed it.

Khan was notoriously dissatisfied with the I Feel For You album. She has always essentially been a jazz singer in waiting, far more eager to be scatting through "Night In Tunisia" with Freddie Hubbard or even Dizzy himself, and didn't have much time for being squared in a contemporary scenario of ricocheting beats, rapid-fire arrangements (sound pictures changing multiple times within a single chord) and new-fangled techniques - Arthur Baker and the System were among the other producers who worked on the project. Yet "I Feel For You" paradoxically brings out the rich fullness in her as deftly as the likes of "Tell Me Something Good" and "Ain't Nobody."

Melle Mel's chopped-up "Chaka"s are like modernity knocking on the door of 1984 before Mardin smashes it down with huge, bouncing beats. The combination of talents on "I Feel For You" also usefully sums up the real legacy which the best of 1984's hits enabled; "White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)" for instance was another sleeper from 1983 in the manner of "Relax"; with no daytime radio airplay (no doubt due to the song's central ambiguity whose jittery textures suggest "Do It" far more loudly than the "Don't"s) it methodically worked its way up the lower regions of the chart for the best part of six months - virtually climbing up one place at a time - before broaching the Top 40 in June and thereafter making the top ten. Although Radio 1 did not ban it as such but only played it when it had to (e.g. chart shows), "White Lines" sold in excess of half a million - mostly on 12-inch - and was still on the chart in early 1985. On "I Feel For You," however, Melle acts as the as yet unheard voice of the object of Chaka's desire, not only emphasising his panting eagerness to reciprocate, but also to indicate that "I'll make you more than just a physical dream," counteracting the singer's frank admission in the song itself that "it's mainly a physical thing."

Then there is Prince, the author of the song, who after years in cult semi-darkness finally broke through (im)properly in Britain in 1984 with the revolutionary "When Doves Cry," which climbed to number four (and really should have gone all the way) despite the total and deliberate absence of any bass on the track, and the huge-selling Music From Purple Rain soundtrack album which flooded colours of romance into the partly bereft 1984 just as its unlikely sonic twin, the Cocteau Twins' Treasure, serenaded that autumn with classical hues of noble love. He was someone who, much like Frankie, had reintroduced unambiguous sex into the politesse-suffocating pop curriculum of the period, though he did so from a classic walled-off auteur perspective rather than a glam-punk one (the Prince of the mid-eighties is what the Stevie Wonder of the mid-eighties might have been; and rest assured that I will have MUCH more to say about Music From Purple Rain later in this piece.

But then Stevie Wonder himself is also on "I Feel For You." One second of his harmonica, rudely and joyously blasting out slurring overtones, contains more genuine happiness than all four crawling minutes of the facile greeting card of "I Just Called To Say I Love You" (which latter is the only 1984 number one single not anthologised or included in Then Play Long, though I note that Wonder's - and Dionne Warwick’s - soundtrack to The Woman In Red, featuring such deathless classics as charity shop favourite “Don’t Drive Drunk,” topped the NME album chart. The one you all think I missed out appears on entry #314). And Mardin's punctum here is to intersperse Wonder's playing with samples of the 12-year-old Little Stevie saying YEAH! from 1963's monumental "Fingertips Pt 2" - a single which, thanks to the lack of a palpable British licensing deal for Motown at the time, failed to chart here at all. Additionally it should not be forgotten that Wonder was the unseen powerhouse behind Rufus' deliciously sensual "Tell Me Something Good," a number two hit in the America of 1974 but again nothing in Britain, the tiger excluded in favour of the partly unmentionable sheep.

So "I Feel For You" serves to put numerous wrongs right; but far more importantly it is a lubriciously gleeful Coke-can bubbling piece of genuinely sensuous pop-dance-soul; despite Chaka's own reticence, hear her hollering her passion towards the end of the record, revel in the sonic rollercoaster of repeated backward slides, beats abruptly stopping or careering towards each other within their own spangled internal mirrors. Yes, it sounds big, but its bigness is generous, welcoming, encompassing and all-embracing. You could play it at maximum volume on your Walkman travelling up and down the M40 in that still shiny yellow autumn - its kiss (and yes, there's another should-have-been-number-one in the making) is enough to bring anyone back from the edge of a nervous breakdown. It breathes, it laughs; and as regards Chaka's sexier than sex giggle in the chorus, "I think I love you," it is given on the assumption that you know this thought to be a truth.

“A life of its own lays down the horizon”

Who would have thought it? Billy Ocean, who had not had a hit single to speak of (i.e. not including “American Hearts” or “Are You Ready”) in Britain since 1977 – at least, not as a performer – began 1984 backing Scott Walker, and sounding uncannily like Billy MacKenzie, on “Track Three,” and ended the same year having topped the American charts and returned to our top ten with a song thought so universal that regional variations such as “European Queen” and “African Queen” were recorded. There isn’t much to say about it except that it’s a superior “Billie Jean” knockoff (co-written and produced by the late Keith Diamond) wherein Ocean’s smooth operator is distracted from “running my game” by the appearance of his true love; he thereafter promises to jack it all in and remain faithful. Good lad.

Other Major Conflicts

The Jacksons’ “comeback” album Victory also topped the NME album chart but only peaked at #3 on the one we’re using (you may discern why we don’t entertain doing a parallel/sidebar blog about the NME number one albums). Certainly “State Of Shock” and “Torture” (which latter is, incredibly, only the second worst hit single to be called “Torture”) would have been lucky to scrape into the Top 500 had they been recorded by Norman Evans and the Gerrymanders. “Body” – objectification? Never! – didn’t even manage to penetrate the Top 75, and is an entirely listless minor relative of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” The songwriting credit reads “M. Jackson,” but then you realise that its lead singer is Marlon Jackson. Michael is barely audible. “If we put on ‘Thriller,’ we have to put this on as well…”

God In The Minneapolis House

(The following is a revamped excerpt from a piece I wrote about Jam and Lewis for the now defunct Stylus magazine in April 2006. I do not encourage that you search for the original piece as the views on late-period Janet Jackson that I express in it are singularly wrongheaded).

Whereas this is the sound of forever giving POP.

We must go back to the early summer of 1983; I was in Glasgow on a family visit during my student vacation, and specifically I was browsing through new 12-inch dance imports in that city’s (now defunct) 23rd Precinct record shop when I first heard it. From the opening upward squelch of bass, blurting all over the rhythm track like indeterminate spunk, it felt like a billionfold supercharged variant on the Lonnie Simmons/Gap Band template, suddenly thrust into 3D. Over the track a bold female sang about what wasn’t quite a surrender to polygamous subservience; she knew her man was a philandering shit but damn it he turned her on—still she puts her foot down that he must make a special effort for her, on the inner assurance that she will eventually have him all to herself. Halfway through the song a riotous rock guitar materialises, working in ascending tandem with both bass and vocal, and then a mesmerising, seemingly endless chant takes hold of the song and lifts it further into the realms of the divine unreal. It felt like the black ‘80s “Hey Jude.” I had to sit down at the counter in shock and listen to it over and over, as indeed I did back at home for the rest of that day; I didn’t want it to end.

It was the full-length (8:55) 12-inch version of “Just Be Good to Me” by the S.O.S. Band, and it took nearly another year for the record to break the UK Top 20, but it seemed to have streaked out of nowhere. The writers and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis I recognised as members of the funk band The Time, whose album What Time Is It? I had purchased the previous summer. I knew they were something to do with Prince but in those pre-Purple Rain days they seemed continents ahead of him, and, sadly though I say it in hindsight, universes ahead of cheery Brits trying to mix punk with funk—that cry of “We don’t like New Wave!” which abruptly turns up halfway through the album could only have derived its passion from someone who loved it deeply and madly. In retrospect, however, one sees all the necessary elements being formed; on the album’s centrepiece “The Walk” there is a moment (5:37) where you clearly hear the Jam and Lewis embryo forming; hallucinatory half-tempo harmonies over frantic, active rhythm.

With the S.O.S. Band they took this basic miscegenation of New Wave, post-Chic mainstream dance and post-Clinton spermatic funk and applied to it the shiny yellow gloss of those Linn drum machines and Oberheim synthesisers they’d heard on all those strange English pop records of the period. Their schematic structures were generally arch-like in appearance; note how every element in “Tell Me If You Still Care” climaxes at 3:48 before carefully descending again, like a hopped-up Gorecki. But “Just Be Good To Me,” even excerpted here, even after having taken nearly a year for the dinosaur-like British public to catch up with it, is irreducible (the 12-inch mix now exists on CD), irrefutable, insurmountable, untouched and touching.

My Hyper Hyper Guy

Whatever you might think of the movie it comes from, there is more palpable jouissance in Deniece’s vocal, and indeed in the arrangement, with the percussion being slowly augmented as each verse comes around, than in a whole reduced-by-closing-time heap of British pop from the same period. So what if her baby hasn’t got too much going for him, including singing off-key (is he Phil Oakey), and what the hell does it matter when he does the one thing he is good at doing so well – and Deniece’s whoops and growls leave little doubt as to what that thing is? British values shrink in the shadows, but America leaps out and says: so what? Let’s party! Terrific rhythm and bubblegum, as well as a reminder, with that soaring, sustained soprano note at the end, that there was once a woman called Minnie Riperton.

Death Disco

Worst case scenario: the Red Shoes one, where you can’t cease the dancing. Both the Miami Sound Machine and Sister Sledge songs, though recorded five years apart, provide a microcosm, or preview, of the club-as-World setting of so much post-2009 pop. The horn charts to “Dr Beat” suggest that the Miami Sound Machine still have a foot in the seventies but it’s hard to tell whether Gloria Estefan’s yelps are of ecstasy or destabilisation; the key is in the great bridge passage (“I just don’t know…DON’T KNOW…how I’m gonna deal with you”) whose harmonies suggest a disco Shocking Blue. But Estefan gradually ups the desperation ante; first she’s “gonna lose my brain/Gonna go insane” and then “You’ve got to find a cure/Or we’re gonna die/Yes, we’re gonna die” as if she only has four minutes to save the world.

Sister Sledge, and Chic, go deeper, and darker; the “caught in a trap” refrain derives from “Suspicious Minds” and the lyric and performance breathlessly outline just how an unblinking devotion to music, at the expense of all else (thereby implying that nothing else matters), can do to a person; it can cost that person work, love, friends, a home. When Joni Sledge exclaims “Melody is GOOD TO ME!” near the fadeout, you could be mistaken for thinking that’s she singing “Melody is KILLING ME!”

The Purple Prince Of Pop…There

Listening to it anew after over a quarter of a century, there remains no doubt; Music From Purple Rain was 1984’s greatest pop album (there is only one rival, which we haven’t reached yet). It might only have peaked at #7 in Britain (though stayed on our charts for ninety-one weeks) but every other pop record of that year really needn’t have bothered turning up. Some long-term fans knew and recognised his tricks and felt that song-for-song, outrage-for-outrage, it didn’t quite match Dirty Mind. But in the otherwise largely dead or dying context of the 1984 summer, to an audience who had not really known who he was even a month before “When Doves Cry” exploded onto the airwaves, it stood out like a Gaudi cathedral arising from a row of low-roofed grey granite boarding houses.

The reason for its power? Because Prince dared say, sing and talk about things from which virtually everybody else in 1984 averted their heads; took into account things like colour, outrage, glamour, sexual ambiguity (to a far subtler extent than some British exponents). And because, even without the film (which is the best way to experience the album, i.e. avoiding seeing the film), it palpably tells a story; a story which we’ve had in pop before but only gingerly went up to a point. Hence SMiLE – then still only a chimera of bootlegged fragments – traverses America and sings of innocence, nature, industry and elements, but it is only with the final thrust into the future, i.e. “Good Vibrations,” that sex rears its hitherto unfeasible head. Likewise, in I Remember Yesterday, Summer and Moroder discover the history of popular music but only when they face the future and, more or less, get down on it (“I Feel Love”) is their point truly made.

But Prince’s idea of foreplay is more rapid and forward. So “Let’s Go Crazy” begins with a solemn preacher’s pulpit which gradually turns into a speed-driven gargle before a Racey organ arrives to GET ON WITH IT before the whole thing detonates at the end with a Hendrix solo and a bar blues finale which somehow turns into Coltrane’s Ascension.

The glory continues. “Take Me With U” – performance-wise, as much of a Wendy and Lisa song as a Prince song (“You’re sheer perfection,” “Thank you!” – it’s Jack Nicholson’s Joker, preening in the mirror, and no Jerry, he didn’t ask), with a deliciously askew string line and awe-inspiringly logical chord changes and resolutions which render all other pop of its period timid. I don’t know how you quantify or qualify “perfect pop” but if perfect pop is anything it is “The Beautiful Ones,” a song and performance which I find just about flawless, with all the chord modulations and harmonies you’d given up hope over pop ever harbouring again materialise, like God in the Laundromat (and it might only owe something to the Stranglers’ “La Folie”). Its build-up is inevitable and mighty; his vocal screams (“DO YOU WANT HIM? OR DO YOU WANT ME?”) overblow into Pharaoh Sanders abstractions, although it might just be the unexpected spirit of Barry Ryan. Even the drummer’s delayed cymbal strokes six bars from the end have their dramatic purpose, and the ending electronic hisses and bleeps are like Hendrix re-ascended to heaven.

The rest of side one doesn’t quite have the same impact, but “Computer Blue” is free jazz AoR, effortlessly showing Huey Lewis and the News who’s boss, and “Darling Nikki” might be a slightly strained attempt at reprising the impact of “Jack U Off” or “Head,” but its Sgt Pepper-via-Bolan (via Foo Fighters to come) grind, leading into backward verses of experience, certainly does what it’s been summoned to do.

“When Doves Cry” is perhaps a little more perfect in its seven-inch form, minus the slightly show-offy keyboard flourishes at the end, but its bass-less protesting turned around all notions of how a pop record should, or could, be made. With the primal scream having been screamed (which is only on the full version), catharsis of a kind is achieved and the mood moves on to celebration; hence the pregnant hops and skips of “I Would Die 4 U” and its immediate segue into “Baby I’m A Star,” with those church piano chords that just keep on giving and pounding.

Then it’s time for the big finish. Prince begins the song with tentative chords, just as Jimi would have approached “Little Wing”; the drummer enters patiently, and Prince sings to his would-be lover, asking her forgiveness, before turning his attention to the world (“You say you want a leader/But you can’t seem to make up your mind”), and so the song then bleeds into colour (just as it is faded out on The Hits Album) with a long, heartfelt guitar solo which nags at different trinkets of melody here and there, frequently howls in anguish and then – after a dramatic pause – thunders to a close; but that is not quite the end. The piano continues its high tinkles, and then a string quartet come in from nowhere, playing memories of Samuel Barber (or perhaps they were thinking of Feldman’s Coptic Light or Coleman’s “Sunday In America”) over the song’s not quite harmonious root chord (B flat suspended second). It is as if pop is being buried and resurrected at the same time. It is not something that human beings like you or me could do. That is what great pop is about. The message, as far as this album is concerned, is: hey, we’ve got Thriller, we’ve got Purple Rain – where’s your competition?

Slow Down

There’s a little more to say about “Careless Whisper” (which here appears in its seven-inch form, faded out slightly early) and not just that it could well be as much Andrew’s song as George’s. What if they only sense that the music’s too loud? What if the DJ is playing a ballad? What if they’re trying to hear what everybody else in that club cannot? What if they’re not even in a club at all?

Wishful Thinking

Something about “Drive” disturbs me even more than the China Crisis single. Is it Mutt Lange’s flawless (as in: spot the join/human being) production? Is it Timothy Hutton’s video, in which most of the performers appear to be mannequins? Is it the fact that, despite Ric Ocasek having written the song, he got the bass player (Benjamin Orr) to sing lead?

The song is threateningly slow. Orr’s vocal is also threatening (“It’s too late,” “When you shake,” both followed by sustained hisses as though he hates himself for even thinking these things). Greg Hawkes’ Fairlight is not reassuring. If the protagonist is ending a relationship, then he alternately hates her (“Who’s gonna hang it up/When you call?”), loves her and…“protects” her (“Who’s gonna plug your ears/When you scream?”). She is troubled and he is troubled by her troubles. But the slow, overly patient crawl of the song indicates life coming to an end – and that is without the hindsight of the following year’s CBC film. “You can’t go on/Thinking…nothing’s wrong” reminds us that there was once a group called Joy Division. This song was also recorded, in 1984, by Des O’Connor. And that is truly disturbing, not least because Des sounds like the premature ghost of Billy MacKenzie.

Perhaps the least settling song on this record.
Dysfunctional AoR With Modern-Style Synthesisers!

You have to feel sorry for Chicago. Well, you don’t, really, because they are rich and comfortable. Sorry, perhaps, in the sense that, although their music had a more varied approach than the hits might suggest, Britain after 1976 was only interested in their big ballads. Fittingly, “Hard Habit To Break” lumbers along like a giant triple-tusked elephant. Its sentiments are very old-fashioned (“I was spreading your love too thin”; Peter Cetera appears to find it difficult to differentiate between love and Lurpak) but the record strives to be modern. Bill Champlin’s rather gruffer voice shares lead vocal duties with the hugely irritating Cetera, whose voice resembles a parrot begging you to reconsider. There is skill and modest ingenuity at work – how could there not be, when the record was arranged and produced by Canada’s David Foster? – but the song is co-written by premier pop hack Steve Kipner (“Toast And Marmalade For Tea” or “Fight For This Love”; it all ends up sounding the same) and its groaning balustrades make us wonder if this is where the Beach Boys might have ended up if history had been different. Foursquare Midwestern rock, this is where you finish. For now.

They Live By Night (2)

The sleeve describes this as being Lauper’s third hit single – it was actually her fourth, but there was no way something like “She-Bop” was going to be included on a compilation like this. It only peaked at #64 in the UK – everybody, presumably, had the album by then – but it’s nearly as affecting a performance as “Time After Time.” Lauper’s night life is very different from Branigan’s – or is it? – as she and her Other lie there, or sit at the back of this taxi, moving endlessly yet going nowhere. “We have no past,” “There is no end” – there is the hint of Marianne Faithfull in her delivery. The life and love are eternal and maybe she thinks they are too. For now, that’s just about enough. The song was written by Jules Shear and was previously recorded – though not released – by The Cars.

Anguish UK

Again we are back to Britain, and again it is not simple; the tempo remains down but the Thompson Twins sing a feminist song about forbearance and sudden bloody eruption, while the Stranglers warn against injecting oneself with drugs. Does Lauper sing “the meter clicks,” and, if so, why does she make it sound like “the needle clicks” and not make one think of a gramophone? “Skin Deep” is so streamlined a production (Laurie Latham again) that it could almost be French, and while the Stranglers may be generally around the same age as Chicago, they seem to have a much better idea of what to do with synthesisers in the eighties.

The “Jazz” Revival (Slight Return)

Nobody was really interested in pushing any envelopes, except backwards, to an idealised 1964 where Getz/Gilberto spins and Labour are in power forever. It was all very dour, even when Robin Millar, the man who produced both these records (for which he was briefly acclaimed as the “acoustic Trevor Horn”), did his best to sparkle them up.

“Each And Every One” begins with a horn section being very careful not to play “Rock With You” before settling into the standard bossa nova setting. Tracey Thorn still isn’t quite Not A Marine Girl; there is still the aura of the grumpy indie kid about her musings, which amount to “don’t try it” and may be a political metaphor. Ben Watt sounds exactly the same as he does now – sprightly, enthusiastic – and Dick Pearce’s flugelhorn sounds as yearning and dignified as it did on Westbrook’s The Cortege. There was much more to EBTG than this, but unfortunately this is Tracey and Ben’s only direct appearance on Then Play Long. Actually my description of Tracey's vocal performance isn't remotely fair; Lena says that a certain nasal twang to her 1984 voice, together with phrasing suggestive of a hard-to-place accent, makes Tracey, if anything, an unexpected forebear to Lorde.

Meanwhile, Sade, the singer, seemed so much more confident in her ways, and her ways were far more effectively quiet, in terms of not sounding loud and brash like the rest of 1984. She never over-emotes but you are never left in any doubt that she has expressed emotion; hence her “Why Can’t We Live Together?” maybe trumps Timmy Thomas’. Diamond Life was 1984’s always-the-bridesmaid-never-the-bride hit album, on the charts forever but never getting past number two, and is mostly a series of songs about living in a squat in Tottenham with a future star writer, broadcaster and polemicist. But she makes Tottenham sound like Tangiers. There is a very pronounced wall behind Sade’s wallpaper, and so the singer is adult enough to glide through (the single edit of) “Smooth Operator”; she knows he’s a bit of a shit, but she accepts him just as gently as she wields her icepick of charm through the song's deliberately accumulated clichés ("Love for sale," "Maximum Joy"); the phrase "Coast to coast/L.A. to Chicago" is as meaninglessly meaningful as "New York to East California." Saxophonist Stewart Matthewman stays just on the “civilised” side of breaking out. Oh, and Sade were always the band, and not just the singer. We’ll get back to both soon.

Big Rockin’ Chunks

Observant readers will have noticed that, like Now 1, The Hits Album boasts many modern-sounding songs performed by people who had been around since the seventies, or earlier. But the modernisation process sounds more natural than it did a year previously. Perhaps it’s because sounding contemporary came more easily and naturally to American acts than it did to British ones, hampered as they were not by the stifling qui-est-“in”-et-qui-est-“out” merry-go-round of the period’s UK music media. ZZ Top, Van Halen and Kenny Loggins were not grilled in the NME over why they were not involved in Red Wedge, and sound all the better for it; indeed “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Jump” ended up in tenth position in the NME critics’ singles poll in two consecutive years.

Maybe the British were sick of living in a monastery of cool. From another perspective, ZZ Top were America’s Status Quo, and Van Halen was what America had instead of punk. But both brushed themselves up to date fairly elegantly, without having to drape gaudy neon signs around their necks. Typically, Britain waited a year before putting “Gimme All Your Lovin’” in its top ten, but it was terrific-sounding blues ‘n’ roll which still bore the marks of their Rio Grande Mud days but had been subtly touched up with sequencers and drum machines. They had also done that on Eliminator’s 1981 predecessor El Loco, but no one was listening, and more pertinently, there were no videos. But “Gimme All Your Lovin’” sounded nicely now, unlike Status Quo’s cover of “The Wanderer,” which is to be found on Now 4 and which sounds like rationing books were still in use.

Maybe Van Halen were America’s pop Zeppelin, and it could be argued that if Zeppelin had had a pop bone in any of their bodies, “Jump” is what they might have achieved (the group’s reluctance to release singles in the UK may betray the possibility that they didn’t really “do” pop). 1984’s 1984 – all right, MCMLXXIV – was Van Halen’s sixth and (for a while) last album with David Lee Roth singing. All six are mandatory listening (as is 2012’s powerful reunion album A Different Kind Of Truth). They avoided doing anything “profound” and were alternately (sometimes in the same song) artful and dumb, and in the process Eddie Van Halen managed to expand the vocabulary of the heavy metal guitar while seemingly still flicking aesthetic wet towels in the locker room.

It’s probably true that “Jump” owed at least some of its huge success to the residue of Eddie’s huge impact on Thriller/”Beat It,” but that’s only a way of sidestepping the realisation that this is one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll singles. The synthesiser recalls Who’s Next, and Roth is clearly doing a Daltrey (“You got it TOUGH!”) but the only marginally camp positivity he expresses, in both song and video, descends like a rainbow of fresh flowerdew on the dark alleys in which this album has hitherto largely dwelt. “I get UP!,” he begins, “and nothin’ gets me down”; it could be 1956 again, the American dream ready to happen, and there he is, with his “back against the record machine” – he’s seen this girl, focuses on chatting her up, but has his own, refreshing doubts (“I ain’t the worst that you’ve seen”). All things considered, he “might as well JUMP!” as in going for it, preferring life to death.

And then Eddie solos furiously and the synthesiser bisects into conflicting arpeggios (there’s also more than a hint of “Kiss On My List”), Alex Van Halen doing a heroic drumming job, and just as the song pauses – and perhaps ends, like the singer’s chances of love are shot – it and he all rise up again, and the group and record ride into a better sunset.

Even Kenny Loggins is enlivened by the company that he is keeping here, such that his Footloose theme song doesn’t sound like dunderheaded AoR; it’s the more obviously positive side of the “Dancing In The Dark” coin; there he is, working his backside off at some crappy job and something has to BREAK! So let’s dance, and let’s rock, and yes, the movie’s plot is out of Elvis (specifically Loving You), but if you’re marooned in a no-bit hamlet somewhere in Oklahoma where there will be NO MUSIC OR DANCING BY ORDER then it’s a choice of dying or living. The music might sound rusty and laughable to ears weaned on, say, Holger Hiller or the Three Johns (but why not have them all?) but even in Kevin Bacon/John Lithgow thou shalt/not movieland, it is a start. Sure, it’s not Run-DMC or Hüsker Dü or any other American music happening without the Reverend Moore’s permission, but what’s the alternative? Righteously sulking? The unashamed full-throatedness of the American pop voice seems a much more attractive proposition.

Well Hello Adam, Where You Been?

The original wave of New Pop hadn’t totally died off yet, but it wasn’t in a good way. “Apollo 9” was not quite Adam’s last substantial hit record – that was to come as late as 1990 – but it was to all intents and purposes the last of his original run of hits, and feels like the furtive, panicking end of an era. Specifically I am thinking of late 1974 T Rex, the manifestation which released confused records like “Laser Love” and “Light Of Love” (Tony Visconti co-produced). But “Apollo 9” might be a cheerier variant on “Teenage Dream”; everything has vanished into the air, including love and hope, but Adam’s not to be brought down. Still he dresses it up as the rocket counts down to jet him off into oblivion – at times, and with a different arrangement, “Apollo 9” could be a 1957 Tommy Steele/Lionel Bart record – while issuing fake bon mots like “Miss her lots, but there you are.” The countdown does not get beyond five – as in “Once Upon A Time,” but in reverse – and the record cuts off abruptly at that point. The parent album Vive La Rock did not appear for another year, and by then no one was listening.

Give Me A Future

Bad Attitude is never a good title for an album, and Meat Loaf didn’t buck the trend. He wasn’t entirely without Jim Steinman, who contributed two songs to the record – “Nowhere Fast” and, if you will, “Surf’s Up” – but the singer got impatient waiting for Steinman to finish and farmed out the rest of the record to other writers. In particular, “Modern Girl” was written by two National Lampoon alumni, Sarah Durkee and Paul Jacobs, who otherwise concentrated on writing songs for children’s television, including Sesame Street (they were responsible for the PBS series Between The Lions).

Musically, “Modern Girl” is no great shakes; it’s standard Loaf fare and perhaps by late 1984 sounded a little dated. But the singer makes it clear throughout that he is fervently trying to get away from the past (“Somewhere just between the past and somethin’ dawnin’ new”) and hit the ground of the future flying. The sentiments are those of “Born To Run,” of course – “Can’t you hear the planet groanin’ like a broken down machine/Rusted with the guilty tears of fallen kings and queens?”- but the spirit is undaunted. The backing singers are Clare Torry – the voice of “Great Gig In The Sky” – and Stephanie de Sykes, once the voice of “Born With A Smile On My Face” (the album was recorded in the UK). His is a better attitude than others expressed throughout this record, and there is a certain poignancy as he realises that he might not have a place in any new world, on any new freeway. But he is, at least, prepared to try.

Give Me A Break

Ah, Rod, we’re never quite finished, are we? By 1984 he was essentially making aural air fresheners, rather than music as such, and his Camouflage album was packaged such that one might reasonably expect it to be handed out as a bingo prize on Blackpool’s North Pier. So he does “Some Guys Have All The Luck” the straight, boring way, and we are expected to believe that he, Rod Stewart, ain’t got no one to love. Perhaps there were no leggy blondes on the Greyhound bus, which he would never have taken anyway.

Britain: Landlocked In The Past

The Rod Stewart song leads us back to consideration of why Britain – even when expatriate for almost a decade – still can’t get it right, namely because, unlike Meat Loaf, it not only is unable to break with and let go of the past, but is positively unwilling to do so. Hence we have a Hits Album here which, though not dazzlingly brilliant, does at least suggest several possible viable futures, virtually all of them American or aiming towards America.

But with the last two songs, Britain scuttles away into the far dusty corner and continues to seek refuge in yesterday. “Teardrops” is a straight MoR rock ‘n’ roll ballad which could have come from 1957; very professionally and efficiently put together – Shaky wrote the song himself – but almost completely, shoulder-shruggingly so-what uneventful, as though the ambition of rock ‘n’ roll was always to emulate Polyfilla. Only guest guitarist Hank Marvin, another beacon of a better, more promising past (for some), beams any light of interest into the record; the fact that the latter can still achieve top ten albums in 2014 says something about the British which I don’t want to analyse too deeply at the moment.


And as these things go, a novelty record turns into a tribute. I was contemplating how I was going to write about “Hole In My Shoe” and bring this piece to an end yesterday afternoon when the news of Rik Mayall’s death came through; the ending doesn’t quite write itself, since this “Hole In My Shoe” is nothing more than a faintly wacky, maximalist retread of a song whose magic relied on its powers of minimalist suggestion; a hoot to listen to once and a bore thereafter. Nigel Planer sometimes sounds like Suggs, but more often sounds like what he is; an actor playing a role. Meanwhile producer Dave Stewart (the Hatfield and the North/”It’s My Party” one) goes for broke, such that I end up wishing that he doesn’t fill every blessed gap in the record with elephant bleats or “I Am The Walrus”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” quotes.

I suspect that something like The Young Ones will end up the same way; undoubtedly entertaining at the time, probably because it was about students and was principally watched by students, it was nowhere near as radical as it thought it was – imagine The Goodies as undergraduates – and has not aged well. I am one of the few people on Earth who actually found the 1987 “sequel”/Bottom prequel Flithy, Rich And Catflap funnier, but then I’m a sucker for showbiz golf gags, Anne Diamond-y, etc.

Alas, I find Rik Mayall something of a problem. His comedy is too manic for my tastes. Always, whether Kevin Turvey or Alan B’Stard or either manifestation of Lord Flashheart, he never shuts up, he never does nothing, he is always upfront, always jabbering away as though in eternal combat with an unheard power drill. There is such desperation to his comedy work that one ceases to find it funny. In today’s obituaries there was the comment, from Simon Gray (Mayall appeared in his play Cell Mates, opposite Stephen Fry, who famously fled to Bruges for a time halfway through its run), that he felt that Mayall “could get through life only by pretending to be other people.” There is anecdotal evidence that even in private, off-guard, he was still being “Rik Mayall” rather than himself.

Set against that is the portrait of Mayall the actor, a skilled professional who always knew his lines, always thought up bits of business, was always there for others in whatever production he appeared in. Unlike Peter Sellers – whose spectre is called up by the above quote – he did not act the arrogant goat; he was a devoted husband and father who always had time to help out with good local causes. And as a straight actor, Mayall became more thoughtful, and perhaps deeper; I saw his Khlestakov in the 1985 National Theatre production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector and he seemed too nervy and jumpy – it was like watching Kenneth Williams on stage (the same bulging eyes and air of semi-mock-outrage). But his (and Adrian Edmondson’s) appearance in Waiting For Godot at the Queen’s Theatre six years later was a revelation; contemplative, fatalistic, oddly moving. I wish he had done more things like that.

Still, he was lucky to survive a 1998 quad bike crash, and in all probability it was the after-effects of that accident which finally called him in yesterday morning, aged fifty-six (he was exactly one day older than Gary Numan). Yet between then and now he was able to fit in more work, and do more good things which weren’t spoken about. He did not betray himself, always wanted you to know that whatever you thought he was, he was only playing at being that. He was on life’s side.

That is all I have to say about Rik Mayall or “Hole In My Shoe” or The Hits Album, and after this I am downsizing. We are not really finished with 1984 – four albums released in that year do not reach number one, and therefore this tale, until 1985 – but I’m done with the long prose poems. I’m not getting any younger, and ideally I would like this whole exercise to be over and done with by the time I get to sixty. So my posts from now on are going to be more concise, and hopefully more pithy (I speak, I must emphasise, for my posts only; Lena can do what she likes with hers, and it will take a lot more than 500 words to do entry #310, for example, proper justice). After all, if David Thomson can sum up a thousand films brilliantly and evocatively on such a word count, there’s no excuse.