Thursday 7 August 2014

VARIOUS ARTISTS: The Greatest Hits Of 1985

(#325: 30 November 1985, 1 week)

Track listing: Do They Know It’s Christmas? (Band Aid)/Love And Pride (King)/Love To Love You Baby-I Feel Love-Johnny Remember Me (Medley) (Bronski Beat and Marc Almond)/You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) (Dead Or Alive)/White Wedding (Billy Idol)/Wide Boy (Nik Kershaw)/That Ole Devil Called Love (Alison Moyet)/Suddenly (Billy Ocean)/There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart) (Eurythmics)/Cherish (Kool and The Gang)/Move Closer (Phyllis Nelson)/Could It Be I’m Falling In Love (David Grant and Jaki Graham)/Rhythm Of The Night (DeBarge)/Clouds Across The Moon (RAH Band)/Live Is Life (Opus)/19 (Paul Hardcastle)/We Close Our Eyes (Go West)/Slave To Love (Bryan Ferry)/Everything She Wants (Wham!)/Feel So Real (Steve Arrington)/Say I’m Your Number One (Princess)/Nightshift (Commodores)/I Want To Know What Love Is (Foreigner)/Things Can Only Get Better (Howard Jones)/Axel F (Harold Faltermeyer)/Everything Must Change (Paul Young)/Since Yesterday (Strawberry Switchblade)/Ghostbusters (Ray Parker Jnr)/The Last Kiss (David Cassidy)/I Know Him So Well (Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson)

As Lena intimated in her commentary on Sade’s Promise, the compilation album now effectively takes over. This, you’ll be pleased to hear, is the first of four consecutive Various Artists compilations to feature in this tale; three of these bring 1985 to a close, while the fourth follows a ten-week run by the resurgent, and already written about, Brothers In Arms.

But The Greatest Hits Of 1985 is, depending on where you stand with these things and, more importantly, what you most felt like buying at the time, either the most or least dispensable of these four. In an era of Now and Hits it is, as the late Willie Donaldson would have remarked, a sobering thought that telemarketing-specific record companies were still in operation. Founded with a Government loan in 1982, the specific aim of Telstar Records was to market compilation albums in specialist fields. Over the years this would prove profitable, as they controlled, amongst others, the Deep Heat, Kaos Theory, 100%..., BRIT Awards and Euphoria brands (and even had a share in the Hits franchise in the early nineties).

Their Greatest Hits Of… series began, effectively, in 1985 and basically, but for many years, ran annually. In the long run this was probably a disadvantage; with just one release per year, the series could not commercially compete with the Now and Hits records, and given that 1985 was a peculiarly fecund year for compilation albums – with two Now albums, two Hits albums and two volumes in the Chrysalis/MCA-originated Out Now! series, this meant that the year’s hits were anthologised to a reasonably comprehensive degree not equalled in later years – The Greatest Hits Of 1985 did appear a little out of date when it first emerged. Not that this stopped the album from going platinum – do not underestimate the power of pre-Christmas casual record buyers looking for a handy one-size-fits-all summary of the year in pop – but its track listing is rather like an end-of-year critics’ poll which has gone to press far too early. Although all of its thirty songs made the top ten, eight previously appeared on Hits 2, four on Now 5 and six on Out Now! In addition, “There Must Be An Angel” reappears on #326 and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in the far more suitable context of #327 (and I will be discussing both when I get to these entries). This means that two-thirds of the album was easily available elsewhere – and at least nine of the thirty songs actually date from 1984.

Indeed, “I Want To Know What Love Is,” “Everything Must Change” and “Slave To Love” come around here for the third time;  it is almost a throwback to the days of interchangeable versions of “The Twelfth Of Never” and “Roses Are Red.” It therefore didn’t involve much work on my part in terms of re-familiarising myself with these songs, since most remain stock items of oldies radio. It also doesn’t paint a particularly rosy picture of 1985 as the Greatest Year in Pop (which certain radio stations continue to imply that it was) but a year of Make-Do-And-Mend Pop, a year of Be-As-Un-Pop-As-You-Can Pop; the track commentaries, as such, do not really go beyond standard chart stats dreariness, except on one or two disastrous occasions ("19," for instance, is described as "one of the year's biggest success stories - on a controversial subject." Thank you, Hugh Thomson). All that really remains for me to do is to summarise the songs which otherwise don’t make it into Then Play Long, including the six from Out Now!, which wasn’t a number one album but is definitely worth picking up for curveballs such as “Between The Wars,” “Love Like Blood,” “Change Your Mind” and even the Kane Gang’s “Gun Law” (as well as otherwise un-compiled hits such as “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” and “The Riddle”).

A Medley Of Reclamation

Donna Summer had gone born-again Christian, and said things – or was said to have said things; she always denied having said them – she really shouldn’t have said about her main audience. So a justifiably angry Bronski Beat and Marc Almond decided to reclaim her music’s heritage for a greater good.

The medley sounds like it was great fun to make (an assertion backed up by its video), with “Love To Love You Baby” being gradually sped up to the point of climax and the musicians finding new melodic toplines and meaning in “I Feel Love.” The “Johnny Remember Me” interlude may be a nod to this pop’s distant (though not too distant in 1985) past, or possibly a hidden pun (“Johnny,” sighs an exasperated Almond, “why don’t you remember me?”) but the feeling and secreted rage are palpable throughout. At a time when their community faced the prospect of terrible decimation, Jimmy Somerville and Marc Almond stood up for what the music meant to them, to their people. The subtext: “don’t let it…or us…die.”

“Punk Rock”

Actually, “White Wedding” was superior, snarly (but subtly so) AoR rather than punk rock as such, but given its alleged subject matter – see #249 – it carried just about teeth to bite its way through at least some of its year’s complacency.

Lionel Richie

Who would have thought Can’t Slow Down would have exercised such an influence on mid-eighties mainstream pop? “Suddenly” is a “Hello” wannabe, and “Rhythm Of The Night” is a sort of junior variant on “All Night Long.” Neither is exactly disagreeable, but I would not rush, or even otherwise bother, to play either. Both, however, are considerably better than “Say You, Say Me,” so the whole affair might say something about the parlous state of Motown at the time.

Phyllis Nelson

Previously a would-be Philly Sound star who never quite made it - she was one-third of the female group Brown Sugar - and in Hi-NRG quarters best known for such records as "Don't Stop The Train" and "I Like You," "Move Closer" represented perhaps the only opportunity Phyllis Nelson ever got to sing the music she wanted and loved most deeply. Astonishingly, despite over 32 years of the British singles chart, "Move Closer" was the first self-penned number one by a black female artist. It rivalled the Jennifer Rush "Power Of Love" as the year's biggest last-dance smoocher, but despite a certain similarity in production and arrangement techniques - etiolated, slow-arching Euroballadry with, again, more than a hint of the slower Art of Noise in its framework - "Move Closer" seems to stretch back to something far deeper. If we are to agree with Dave Godin that the essence of Deep Soul is in the grain of the singer's voice, then there are moments in Nelson's love - for instance, her graceful skating across the "sweetest voice sayin' my pretty lady" section, or her varied approaches to the sundry "ooh"s - which connect her directly to the tradition of Irma Thomas and Bessie Banks.

Perhaps "Move Closer" moves a little too smoothly to be a true modern soul classic, and Nelson's arpeggios don't cut quite so loosely on the same agonising restraint/adrenalin boundary which Minnie Riperton vaulted so effortlessly. But the opening speech of "Hey baby, you go your way, and I'll go mine - but in the meantime..." suggests a cloistered, illicit affair, the only slightly less dark end of the street, and the clenched fist of throat raging under Nelson's polite control is now and then very palpable. Like Riperton, Nelson was fated to succumb to breast cancer at too young an age, and after "Move Closer" she never found the same level of freedom in her work. However, we should continue to relish the elegance with which Nelson grasped and sustained her one lovely moment.

Not Britfunk

Not Thom Bell, either; Grant and Graham do a decent job on the Spinners classic – and in this context the adjective “decent” could count as the most scathing of pejoratives – but Derek Bramble’s production buries both singers and song in a Sargasso sea of marmalade mush.

RAH Band

Worlds away - literally - from "The Crunch," some called "Clouds Across The Moon" a bad imitation of American music, but most people scratched their heads, for this is truly one of the strangest of all British hit singles. Richard Hewson's wife Liz gives an immaculate Home Counties lead vocal, all controlled and keeping its countenance despite her husband being involved in a war on or around the planet Mars - but then it might be about far more basic matters. She misses him with an ache that is near-suicidal ("I'm not ashamed to say I badly need a friend/Or it's the end") and wonders not so secretly what he is doing out there other than fighting a war ("Oh, I'm sorry - is there someone there with you?") despite her being loyal and, in a Leonard Cohen "Everybody Knows" sense, largely abstemious ("I've had a million different lovers on the 'phone"). But there are "violent storm conditions in the asteroid belt" and her conversation with him may be abruptly terminated. "Or it's - IT'S..." the singer breaks off, as though her life support machine has been switched off. Her mourning is perhaps too great for the benign sci-fi jaxx-funk soundtrack accompanying her, but imagine what Joe Meek, Geoff Goddard and Glenda Collins could have done with this song in 1962 - it sounds like pre-Beatles pop - and look forward a decade and a half to Grandaddy's "Miner At The Dial-a-View" (or, you can if you want; it's August and The Sophtware Slump is still too upsetting a record for me to listen to). This isn't really Co-op Dave Grusin.

One Vision

The thing which stuck out for me most, watching the BBC Live Aid television footage (after the event), was the brief Austrian section, in which the group Opus performed a song whose lyrics, from imperfect memory, translated into something like "We're only doing this so that we can feel better." It struck a note of stern realism in the midst of what seemed like an extravagant and partly thoughtless fantasia, as though no other performer on that day had the nerve to get straight to the heart of the First World problems inherent in the Live Aid enterprise.

And so I've always had a soft spot for the bierkeller audience (recorded in Oberwart in south-eastern Austria in early September 1984) singalong of "Live Is Life." The song is really nothing more than a celebration of the bond between performer and audience, that although there is a stage "we" are all in one place, with one common purpose. In their 1987 album Opus Dei, Laibach turned it into a scary fascist march. But its spirits, like "Susanna" twelve months before, are ultimately high and friendly.

What's My Mission Now - Now What?

If you're the kind of person for whom music has to be "hard," then music didn't get much harder in 1985 than the work of Tackhead, the erstwhile Sugarhill rhythm section brought to Britain and maximised into vertiginous dub brutality by On-U Sound's Adrian Sherwood. Sometimes known as Fats Comet, at other times backing perma-bandaged Bristol lay preacher Gary Clail at their rightly revered Sound System nights, at yet other times becoming the Maffia behind Mark Stewart; the latter's As The Veneer Of Democracy Starts To Fade album is the most pitilessly accurate musical picture of 1985 (and 2014) Britain and unsurprisingly similarly failed to appear on most critical end-of-year lists.

Their crowning achievement in 1985, however, might be the 12-inch Tackhead single "What's My Mission Now?"; released that autumn, but available on dubplate for the best part of a year beforehand, Keith LeBlanc's beyond-brutalist drums - for most of the time, literally a dentist's drill - soundtracks samples of smug US military generals discussing bombing tactics in Vietnam mixed with cynical documentary voiceovers and a sampled, baffled John Wayne providing the record's title. In its reincarnation on 1988's phenomenal Tackhead Tape Time, complete with live mixing (including random drop-ins from Carmina Burana) and hysterically cackling voiceovers from Clail, it sounds like the world at the end of its tether (to paraphrase in part, via HG Wells, yet another Tackhead 12-inch title).

At the beginning of Clail's "Mission" he sniggers "Saigon!" - and there is some anecdotal evidence of a chicken and egg question when it comes to "19." Hardcastle, previously a harmless Essex jazz-funk operative ("Rain Forest," "Guilty"), watched a late-night television documentary about Vietnam and promptly put together what he perceived as an anti-war protest. But in general, although it niftily predicates the then-imminent wave of Vietnam movies, "19," rather than being 1985's "Two Tribes," comes across as a considerably watered-down variation on the "What's My Mission Now?" template (although, when asked at the time about the aesthetic overlap, LeBlanc was amused and generous: "Damn it," he said, "I wish I'd thought up '19'!")..

In 1969, of course, the Vietnam war flowed like bloodied rivulets through that year's pop, from "Grapevine" to "Ruby." But in 1985, and especially in the face of the more problematic nowness of affairs like El Salvador and Nicaragua, "19" seemed akin to selling blood and grief as a tourist postcard. The video simply cut up the source documentary, and the only commentary which Hardcastle, as a writer, offers is the offensively absurd female chorus, sweetly cooing "Dedededededede-destruction" with an affectation verging on the pornographic. And, like most of the subsequent 'Nam films, "19" focuses on the carnage and suffering from the perspective of the soldiers, rather than the hapless decimated natives of Vietnam, or indeed the ingrained racism and classism which encouraged the placing of the "dispensable elements of our society" in the front line. Perhaps if Hardcastle had entitled his homage "Black" and/or "Poor" rather than simply referring to their average age (bad enough though that was, and continues to be in days of now), he would have struck a truer nerve - but then would the record have gone to number one, and would Mike Oldfield have cared enough to sue Hardcastle and gain a co-writer's credit for the main melody's resemblance to the fugal section of Tubular Bells? What was his mission, then?

"For God's sake, let's turn towards the Northern Light again, then Eastwards to where it all began, and celebrate what's left of pop music...before it all Goes West...FOREVER!" (Ian S Munro, pp me)

Dave Rimmer got it wrong. So did Gary Davies. "!" he demanded when first playing "We Close Our Eyes" on Radio 1. I yearned for silence, or its flipside, the Jesus and Mary Chain.

But Rimmer thought Wham! were the first big post-New Pop stars to have nothing whatsoever to do with New Pop. I hope I have disproved that one way or the other. For it is very evident to me that Go West represent the line in the New Pop sand. Their ascent to fame had absolutely nothing to do with New Pop; there was no side or subtext other than two ambitious English fellows wanting to be Americans, perhaps Michael McDonald and/or David Frank. Peter Cox's voice grinds like Weetabix mistakenly inserted in a chainsaw. The lyric's Blake/Tyger citation is a gross impertinence. There is nothing in or to "We Close Our Eyes" other than what it is. Closing your eyes to what? This non-Cixous cabaret circuit ("If my desire is possible, it means the system is already letting something else through")?

1985 Royalty

"Say I'm Your Number One," a very reasonable SOS Band knock-off, finds Stock, Aitken and Waterman still patiently working towards their masterplan (the follow-up, "After The Love Has Gone" - nothing to do with Earth, Wind and Fire - was a lesser hit but a better record). 1985 saw hit records for King, Queen, Prince and Princess. This seems peculiarly fitting to me.

Wishes Are Nothing More Than Dreams

You never know whom you're going to bump into on the way back down - or up. It was late winter, and suddenly David Cassidy was back in the top ten, for the first time in nearly eleven years, with a tortured electro-ballad that he co-wrote with producer Alan Tarney, featuring very prominent backing vocals by George Michael as if to acknowledge an old legacy (in the same year Michael interviewed Cassidy for the Ritz Newspaper; I'm afraid both parties were slightly drunk). The parent album Romance was not even released in the States but did make the Top 20 here and it's really not a bad record; a more forthright variant on what Tarney would do with Cliff Richard on Always Guaranteed two years later. But the follow-up single "Romance (Let Your Heart Go)," featuring backing vocals by Basia, formerly of Matt Bianco, missed the top 40 and he was back to breeding racehorses and reassuring audiences that any dream would do.

Checkmate - The Tenth Abba Number One Single

The duet Agnetha and Frida never got to sing, "I Know Him So Well" is the tenth Abba number one in disguise, though I think it would have been better without the disguise. Still, Abba were just over two years gone and writers have to write, so Bjorn and Benny met with Tim Rice and conjured up a shaggy dog of a musical about various romantic goings-on at an international chess tournament with extremely vague analogies to then-current global affairs. As with "Argentina," Rice's lyric is subtly misleading, once more to do with how people's words and actions are misinterpreted according to different perspectives. The song is sung by two women apart, in parallel lives, both of whom have had an affair with the same chess grandmaster; they are rueful if not especially surprised ("I could have.../Learned about the man before I fell"). The key couplet, however, is Paige's "He needs a little bit more than me/More security" followed by Dickson's "He needs his fantasy and freedom." In other words, he is a bullshit merchant, a liar-by-night. The joint deep breath, or sigh, they take before the final, shoulder-shrugging "I know him so well" suggests that subliminally they have long since worked this out.

Although artfully done - catch the flames of desperation in the "Why?" of Paige and Dickson's climactic "Why am I falling apart?" - the record doesn't really work because it is too far divorced from the Abba landscape we knew all too well; where there was never any doubt that Agnetha and Frida were describing something chillingly, or warmly, real, there is equally no question that here we are dealing with two seasoned West End pros singing to the gallery. Secondly, the disappointingly dated musical arrangement lacks the adventurousness of Abba's finest work even (especially) by their 1976 standards. And finally in the canon of meditative show tune ballads it doesn't even start to live up to something like "I Don't Know How To Love Him" in which Yvonne Elliman's voice is palpably hurt in its own awe - how to afford physical love to someone you worship as a God? In contrast the foreknowledge of "I Know Him So Well" is efficiently projected, with its clever counterpart of Dickson's warm, honeyed tones against Paige's strident declamations, but rather pallidly delivered. A suitable ending for a year whose charts appeared to support the Thatcherite notion that they who were twelfth-best would get most of the oil, because the best had dirt behind their ears.