(#338: 22 November 1986, 2 weeks)
Track listing: I’ve Been Losing You (a-ha)/Walk Like An Egyptian (The Bangles)/Heartbeat (Don Johnson)/Wonderland (Paul Young)/World Shut Your Mouth (Julian Cope)/The Way It Is (Bruce Hornsby and The Range)/What’s The Colour Of Money (Hollywood Beyond)/Each Time You Break My Heart (Nick Kamen)/You Can Call Me Al (Paul Simon)/Thorn In My Side (Eurythmics)/Always The Sun (The Stranglers)/Don’t Get Me Wrong (The Pretenders)/Rain Or Shine (Five Star)/Brand New Lover (Dead Or Alive)/Roses (Haywoode)/Straight To The Heart (The Real Thing)/True Colors (Cyndi Lauper)/You’re Everything To Me (Boris Gardner)/Every Beat Of My Heart (Rod Stewart)/Glory Of Love (Peter Cetera)/A Different Corner (George Michael)/Because I Love You (Shakin’ Stevens)/The Greatest Love Of All (Whitney Houston)/Love Will Conquer All (Lionel Richie)/For America (Red Box)/Heartbreak Beat (The Psychedelic Furs)/Anotherloverholenyohead (Prince and The Revolution)/Infected (The The)/Rage Hard (Frankie Goes To Hollywood)/Rock ‘N’ Roll Mercenaries (Meat Loaf and John Parr)/Fight For Ourselves (Spandau Ballet)/Addicted To Love (Robert Palmer)
By 1986, a truce, of sorts, seemed to have been reached between the Now and Hits series; just one release each for much of the year, neither of which coincided with the other (Hits 4, Now 7), with Hits 5 released two weeks in advance of Now 8 for Christmas. That it stayed on top for two weeks perhaps indicates who was still really ahead in this race, but I wonder whether too great a rush was made to get the record out; just one of its thirty-two songs made number one, with another five failing to make the Top 40 at all (one of which, “Heartbreak Beat,” did not even break the Top 75), and it’s the usual curious mix of intermittently terrific stuff with an ocean of treacly dreariness. Yet again, the charts of late 1986 at times had to struggle to keep up with itself, so rapid were the changes taking place, but here I sense a last-ditch, and possibly forlorn, attempt to make the old stuff still matter.
A fantastic start, and one of the Norwegians’ best, with a song and arrangement which at different, and occasionally simultaneous, times suggest the Teardrop Explodes, Roxy Music, Laurie Anderson and even Nick Cave, since this is the tearing-himself-apart soliloquy of somebody who has just killed someone, possibly the person to whom he is singing, in the rain; he puts his gun down on the bedside table and can’t entertain the notion that he could be capable of this. The music rises, dips and challenges; by the time Morten reaches the beyond-exasperated scream of “PREYING” in the couplet “Thoughts to wreck me/Preying on my mind,” he is finished; at one point the song makes as though it’s going to end, before quietly and menacingly restarting. “How can I stop now?” asks Morten, in the full and horrific realisation that he can’t.
Did “Walk Like An Egyptian” really become an unofficial Arab Spring anthem? Its balance of whistling girl-group bubblegum and noisy gong and guitar dissonances sounded sufficient to spur any revolution. There may also be an irony in the Bangles’ best-known songs all having been written by men. But Liam Sternberg had first offered the song to Toni Basil, who turned it down; three of the group take turns to sing the verses, but producer David Kahne didn’t like any of Debbi Peterson’s lead vocals, so relegated her to back-up and furthermore replaced her drums with a drum machine. The wonder is that they didn’t throw the guy out of a twenty-fifth storey window.
Written by industry pros Eric Kaz and Wendy Waldman, “Heartbeat” dates from an age where famous actors were inexplicably also called upon to sing. Crockett mostly roars rather than sings the song, in a below par Bryan Adams fashion (the line “I’ve been standing by the fire” being delivered as though making immediate and unexpected contact with a red-hot poker). Its typical skyscraper-skateboarding drum fills, guitar squeals and DX7 blasts cannot quite mask a degree of sweaty straining on Johnson’s past. Only #46 in Britain, but a top five smash in the States (Hits 5 would probably have done much better in the USA, since many of its songs were far bigger hits there than in the UK).
“I see you in a dress of blue/With a question in your hand/I see you in your attitude/Of sorrow and demand” – another Thatcher analogy? Alas, Young now sounded lost; it is frequently impossible to hear him clearly through the production fog, and the song, which at times tries hard not to be Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl,” is not really up to anything. For many 1983-5 stars, the late season of 1986 was to provide some unwelcome shocks; suddenly the likes of Howard Jones, Ultravox and Young were finding things very hard going. Passing fashions? In part, but substandard material was also to blame.
The Belated Entry of the Crucial Three Into Then Play Long, Part 2of 3. What’s left to say about Julian Cope? Musician, songwriter, psychedelic metal warrior, activist, psychogeographer, noted archaeologist and historian, accredited expert on the rock music of Germany and Japan, Head Heritage founder, acidly smart autobiographer and, most recently, acclaimed crime writer. This suggests either a versatile and inquisitive mind whose interests and energies are tireless and inspiring, or a restless and unfocused spirit, unable to stick at one thing for more than five minutes.
On balance I’d go with the former. I loved the Teardrop Explodes, me. Wonderful WTF bubble-organ McGoohan-delia, they were. I played Kilimanjaro without end in my first year at university – and realised I had a lot of work to do when a neighbouring student asked me whether “Treason” was Duran Duran. “Ah, it’s all the same to me,” he grinned. Wilder was a bleared, BLURred November ’81 spike of rosy dreaming which made that month and my endurance of it worthwhile. I wore my father’s old RAF coat with suitably psychedelic scarf, and at the time I still had enough hair to let it grow to a reasonable facsimile of the Cope crop. All that and he had an alter ego (Kevin Stapleton) who brought Scott Walker (Emmett Hayes) back from charity shop wilderness into the centre of something.
I stuck with him right through his first two solo albums and was pleased to see him back on TV in late ’86 belting out “World Shut Your Mouth” from his customised mike-stand-cum-stepladder. After two records of Barrett quiescence he reckoned he’d earned the right to do a third album of scuzzy garage rockouts, and that was Saint Julian. “World Shut Your Mouth” was and is a great “Louie Louie” ripoff with Cope just wanting everybody to pay attention to things worth paying attention to. Better on the album where it never seems to end.
I’ve stuck with him up to Brain Donor as well.
Ben Folds was just about turning twenty when piano-toting Hornsby, from Williamsburg, Virginia, crept onto the scene with his melancholy “The Way It Is”; as with “Boys Of Summer,” an abject reminder of how the ideals, if ideals there were, of the sixties were impolitely being scored out. “Some things will never change,” sang Hornsby, but nobody listened to the counterpunch of “AH, BUT DON’T YOU BELIEVE THEM.” Best heard as the background to Mancunian rapper MC Buzz B’s profoundly moving “Never Change.”
Remember when Mark Rogers was the future of pop? True, it was one week in late summer when Melody Maker was a bit stuck, but this fusion of Squeeze’s “Take Me I’m Yours” and Irish jig is still quite striking, even though, with the repeated “Don’t tell me that you think it’s green/Me, I know it’s red,” Rogers argues his point more often than he strictly needs to do. An album followed, but not in Britain, and Christ knows what became of him.
She’s there, of course, co-writing and producing, and crooning in the background – as if her trademark “Look in your eyes” scarf weren’t a big enough clue. But if Madonna now considered herself too good to go on compilation albums, there was still room for her cast-offs; male model Kamen can’t really sing and does his best with painfully thin material. Meanwhile, an exasperated Sean Penn wonders whether he’s supposed to be the eighties’ giraffe.
Just to say that Ezra Koenig was something like two-and-a-half years old when Graceland came out, and that one of the more boneheaded reviews of the record at the time praised the South African musicians for playing their instruments “with vitality and honesty.” How does one play a musical instrument dishonestly? On the I Love Music message board, one of the responses to my piece on the record states: “Graceland is one of my favorite albums ever I won't listen to alternative opinions under any circumstances so there,” and the author of the post in question appears to be named “art.” Who am I to argue with the giant responsible for such masterpieces as Fate For Breakfast?
In which the formerly trying-hard-to-be-hip duo surrender to the demands of FM programmers and do a boring, straight-down-the-middle-of-the-block-line AoR record of which this is the most stupidly played and replayed example. The album was entitled Revenge, and was very popular with people who didn’t buy albums. What do you mean, you need me to explain what albums were? What am I, Lowell freaking Thomas?
Laurie Latham produced again, and it’s a typical mid-period Stranglers iron-fist-in-mutton-glove, though Hugh Cornwell’s snarl is more noticeable than it was in things like “European Female,” as if the whole band is just about ready to blast out and shriek proto-Merzbow no-tonality for a hundred straight fifty-CD box sets. The song? It’s about Thatcherism, and the modern world, and Chernobyl, and “Always The Sun” may refer to the newspaper.
I’m not sure where Chrissie Hynde was finding herself in the middle of 1986. She didn’t really have a band, for a start; on the Get Close album, she expressed extreme dissatisfaction with a Steve Lillywhite-produced cover of Hendrix’s “Room Full Of Mirrors” (although it sounds more than fine to me). Specifically, she thought drummer Martin Chambers had lost it – although, as she later admitted, he was still severely traumatised from the loss of two former bandmates – and so let him go. Reassembling, with Bob Clearmountain and Jimmy Iovine now producing, and a room full of session musicians (one of whom was, by a delicious irony, Mel Gaynor), Get Close essentially turned into a Hynde solo album, with two songs about her children (“My Baby” and “Hymn To Her”), a lot of funk, and “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” apparently inspired equally by a British Airways in-flight call-signal (the song’s central four-note melodic motif) and an attempt to “do” the Beatles.
Still with Jim Kerr at this point, Hynde’s state of mind during this period could fairly be described as undirected – when Simple Minds came back from touring, the Pretenders had to go off on tour, so the two never really saw each other – and some of that uncertainty may be projected into the song’s structure and performance, in which Hynde implies that this might be great or just very temporary, with several sardonic nods to Kerr’s big visions (“Upon a sea where the mystic moon/Is playing havoc with the tide”). But her tone and the song’s ending are none too hopeful.
Dead Or Alive
Pete Burns sounding relatively low-key and unfussed here, maybe because Stock, Aitken and Waterman have worked out how they’re going to sound.
Her first name is Sidney, she was in Flick Colby’s Zoo troupe for the later days of TOTP, and “Roses” is moderately likeable bubblegum from industry pros Leeson and Vale. Typical can’t live with/without ‘em fare; she wants to go, but then he brings her roses – “WHAT? DO? I? DO?” she asks us. It’s a more convincing conundrum than any of Phil Collins’ sweatier ones.
Proof that in 1986 Cyndi was still hipper than Madge. On one side there was the iceberg, “DON’T DIE OF IGNORANCE,” clinical staff wearing gloves or refusing to touch patients, Section 28. On the other, a song originally written with Billy Steinberg’s mother in mind, which was first offered to, but turned down by, Anne Murray, but a song which, through circumstance, Lauper made her own and which became unofficially resonant throughout the gay/LBGT community. Politically, this record’s most radical song, and also its most sweetly sung. “You’re beau-ti-ful like a rainbow,” whispers Lauper, as though saying goodbye.
What is this reactionary shit – “Because you’re everything a woman ought to be/Sweet and kind and pure of mind/And beautiful to see?” Did rock ‘n’ roll, or liberation, actually happen? Bear this in mind; no matter how hip, cool and wacky you imagine the eighties to have been, it was filled with gunky crap like this. It might as well still have been 1952, which I gather was part of Thatcher’s big idea.
Rod For One’s Back
Yes, on this day of days I’m going to come down hard on this lament about a lost soul wanting to go home to Scotland. Why? Not just because Rod’s actually from Finchley and is a Scotsman only in his mind. But because – despite his even writing the lyric – I just don’t believe him. Listen to Frankie Miller’s “Caledonia” and you can palpate the singer’s tearful confusion; he means what he is singing. Whereas throwing in tropes like “Jacobite,” “Emerald Isle” and “swirling pipes” is a tourist’s Hairy Highlander notion of Scotland (which snows when you turn it upside down). It doesn’t even begin to accentuate the heartache felt by people who are now uncomfortable living in a country where they are jeered at, patronised, threatened and compared with Hitler. Rather than deliberately being kept out of the charts and off the radio for political reasons, “Every Beat Of My Heart” rose to number two. Stay with us, Scotland, because tourists have money.
“I am the MAN who will FIGHT for your HONOUR!” Look, it was Karate Kid TWO for feck’s sake.
"Dedicated to a memory" it says on the reverse sleeve of the single, and on the sleeve's front there is a black-and-white photograph of a man with his back turned to the camera, some distance away, walking into a huge park, unutterably alone. Although Michael was still, at that point, officially one half of Wham!, the record drips with pungent tears of reluctant farewells, although its subtext is more elusive.
A far more complex and satisfying record than "Careless Whisper" - and yet also a far simpler one - "A Different Corner" can fairly be said to be the first entirely solo UK number one single, in that it was entirely composed, sung, played and produced by the same person. It could with equal fairness be described to the most radical of 1986's number ones; there is no chorus, and the song's reflective cycle wafts by in placid echoes of repetition. Comparisons were made at the time with Eno's Another Green World - that refractory Harold Budd treated piano, the same steady, unobtrusive flow of electronics, the distended vocal drones in the background (though the latter may also owe something to the intro and outro of McLaren's "Madam Butterfly") - and through its snow-white sleeve and aura of finality, a kinship with "Atmosphere" was seen. This latter was not far-fetched, since George Michael had recently appeared on a BBC2 arts programme where he reviewed, among other things, Mark Johnson's book An Ideal For Living: A History of Joy Division, and spoke warmly of their music.
"A Different Corner" is indeed a remarkable piece of music in that here, after four years, we finally see the real George Michael emerging, out of the shuttlecocked shorts and faux-machismo, with a finely-judged and emotionally open vocal performance worthy of an older and sadder Cassidy or Donny, and it's a George Michael we could learn to love. And yet, although he sounds more open than on any of his previous records, the real meaning of the song had to remain buried for a dozen more years.
The giveaway comes in the lines, "I would promise you all of my life/But to lose you would cut like a knife/So I don't dare." In other words, he loves his best friend ("'Cos I've never come close in all of these years/You are the only one to stop my tears") but he loves him that way also, and he is tortured because he cannot bring himself to tell him (his "I'm so scared" is the reddest of excoriating wounds) - the same subtext compelled to remain within the shadows of "Johnny Remember Me" and "Have I The Right?" The music's careful placidity is a striking counterpart to his agonised voice - and where does that "And if all that there is, is this feeling of being used" come in, when really it's the paralysing fear of rejection that prevents him from getting close to his desired Other but also stops him from moving away; the torture of lifelong compromise - "I should go back to being lonely and confused/If I could...I would...I swear." Then his unheard pledge also echoes into the far horizon, just as the man retreats into the greenery, walking away...in silence.
A glossy, mid-eighties AoR ballad. By Shakin’ Stevens. Did his record company even know what to do with him by this point?
We’ve done this song before, and she means it, like George Benson and Kevin Rowland meant it. She’s also angrier, and more doomed, than either.
Dancing On The Ceiling is sometimes so laidback a record that it verges on the comatose. Certainly the title song is the equivalent of your uncle doing the Charleston to the Meat Puppets; “Say You, Say Me” is nonsense which should have been renamed “Just Say No,” and “Ballerina Girl” is fundamentally wrong. “Love Will Conquer All” didn’t do much as a single here - #45 plays #9 on Billboard – but it’s the great lost Richie song, a lovely, shimmering ballad of reassurance done with Greg Philliganes and Cynthia Weil, sung in duet with the excellent Marva King, and featuring a wonderful, proto-Erykah Badu chord sequence of unanticipated elegance (G major seventh, C seventh, F suspended second, A seventh [suspended fourth], A seventh and D major seventh). Forgotten by me for a third of a lifetime, this was a very welcome reminder (“Give love a chance”).
What the hell were Red Box (on) about? Pioneering pop/world music crossover? A KwikSave Thompson Twins? Old seventies heads trying to be modern? Pretentious, overqualified hippy garbage which Radio 1 played instead of LL Cool J or Age Of Chance? “Lean On Me” annoyed me hugely when it went top three, and so did “For America” when it went top ten a year later. An assault on Reagan’s assault on Grenada and Nicaragua? Perhaps, but it makes me grind my teeth, so anaemic, bitty and inconclusive is it as a pop record. Whoever’s singing backing vocals on it (Anthony Stewart Head is there). “For America” is why Big Black’s Atomizer had to happen.
Ah, gentlemen, you took so long to get here and you lost all of what made you moderately interesting (for fake Robert Wyatt records you can’t get much better than “Love My Way”). Flippy-floppy AoR in which Butler reminds you that he used to be someone.
So what if the film’s rubbish? So was Purple Rain. As with Graceland, Prince built up the songs from rhythm tracks upwards. But no other pop record in 1986 was as ceaselessly inventive as Parade, and maybe only very few pop records since 1967. “Christopher Tracy’s Parade” starts off as Sgt Pepper being ambushed by the strings from Septober Energy (via Westbrook’s Marching Song) and from there just gets darker and stranger, at least in part because of the arrangements provided by Lennie Tristano’s old pupil Clare Fischer. “A New Position” is “Sex Machine” without a James Brown. “I Wonder U” is a detuned transistor radio trapped the other side of Maxinquaye. “Under The Cherry Moon” is Dennis Potter’s idea of the twenties, the record’s “When I’m Sixty-Four.” “Girls & Boys” toys with French kisses before the whining “Cross The Tracks” Moog loses both patience and tonality before thudding into “Life Can Be So Nice” which atomises into a Cubist jigsaw puzzle of Bolan, Sheila E’s drumming as far out, and far in, as Susie Ibarra on Ten Freedom Summers, before CUTTING OFF and leaving us in the lounge of Hell that is “Venus de Milo.”
Side two features more “conventional” songs, one of which (“Kiss”) is the best pop song about sex ever recorded (whispered, always suggested), culminating in the increasingly bitonal desert of “Anotherloverholenyahead,” which Lena reckons is like James Brown marooned in Joy Division’s wasteland. Thereafter there is nowhere to go except the patient, acoustic elegy of “Sometimes It Snows In April.” Don’t you realise, listeners, that something beautiful – perhaps even pop – is dying?
Not that that worried The The. If Soul Mining were a microcosm of eighties Britain as glimpsed from a basement in Lewisham, then Infected took on, and fought, the gloss. Told off in the NME for not being the Go-Betweens – but they slagged off Parade and thought Mantronix’s Music Madness was the end of civilisation, so who gave a fuck what they thought? Certainly not the thousands of readers who deserted them – Infected is a terrific and big-sounding album, not headachy big like Let’s Dance but as gleaming and threatening as the Big Bang and the newly-opened M25. “Sweet Bird Of Truth” DID sound like the end of the world – Johnson’s scrambled “We’re above the Gulf of Arabia” was truly scary; exactly the sort of thing Bowie should have been doing instead of dreck like “Time Will Crawl” – and “Heartland” frankly sends “For America” out the door/window/continent/planet. Whereas the title song welcomes annihilation; he goes for “love,” knowing that it will kill him, the closing angels at the elevator ready to send him down to hell. “Dear God, God, God, GOD, slow train to dawn,” he hisses with Neneh Cherry, and you’re down there with them.
This is highly unsettling stuff for a Christmas-time number one TV-advertised hits album.
Dylan or Dylan?
They kept the record shops open on the Bank Holiday Monday so that people could go in and buy “Rage Hard.” But it was no use. Holly’s boring, climax-killing announcement, with sampled crowd noises, in the introduction suggested nothing new or different, and a lot less. He begins by impersonating Scott Walker, and then Martin Fry, before remembering to be himself. But the song doesn’t have a song, and the lyric is the usual tired parade of go-for-it tropes (“Don’t give up and don’t give in” etc.). Morley called the second album Liverpool because he knew that was where the band would soon be heading back. It was very bad progressive rock which gave 1986 hard-hitters Red Box and It Bites a run for their money, if not mine.
Why “Dylan or Dylan”? Because ZTT seemed obsessed with Dylan Thomas not going gently into that good night; two songs on 1985’s Insignificance soundtrack, one of which was sung by Roy Orbison, referenced the poem directly. But enough of books, the audience screamed, what about some ACTION?
But they were busy watching the wildlife, and engaging in other activities beginning with the letter “w.”
Meat ‘n’ Parr
“Rock ‘N’ Roll Mercenaries” is the latest contender for the worst song ever to appear on Then Play Long. “Money is power – power is FAME!” bark, unlovingly, a one-hit wonder striving to have another one, and a temporarily washed-up performer who would shortly be reduced to participating in a special edition of a now unmentionable television game show, involving the Royal Family. The Loaf forgot to introduce Parr onstage one night, Parr took umbrage, and they haven’t spoken since. Everything that was wrong with the eighties, and rock music, and not necessarily in that order.
When you think about it, the sentiments of “Fight For Ourselves” aren’t that far away from those of “Panic” – Britain is sinking and something’s going to change, maybe violently. But the music, though making an initial fist of presenting a “harder” Spandau, falls back on glossy soul clichés all too soon, and future wannabe Conservative MP Tony Hadley evidently hadn’t a clue what he was singing (“Well, if life is here before my eyes/I find it hard to see”). How were the rest of us expected to receive it any differently?
Not that far away from “Infected” – “Oblivion is all you crave” – “Addicted To Love” nevertheless carries something of a curse; Palmer, Bernard Edwards (who played bass and produced) and Tony Thompson all died young, while Terence Donovan, who directed the video, committed suicide. Still stuck in the Power Station – the guitar solo is Andy Taylor’s – Palmer dimly tries to recall 1974 tropes while knowing that doom is perhaps not that far away. Kim Gordon’s intentionally blank reading, done in a ten-cent record booth and heard on Ciccone Youth’s The White(y) Album, is perhaps one of the records of the decade.
Moral: An end is coming. How courageous are we to grasp another beginning?
Moral 2: And the dice are loaded. No matter how or where they land, they always read “five.”