Tuesday 28 October 2014


(#351: 29 August 1987, 1 week)

Track listing: Women/Rocket/Animal/Love Bites/Pour Some Sugar On Me/Armageddon It/Gods Of War/Don’t Shoot Shotgun/Run Riot/Hysteria/Excitable/Love And Affection

The matey sleevenote repeatedly apologises to fans for having to wait four years for a follow-up to Pyromania. Reasons for this included drummer Rick Allen slamming his black Corvette into a wall of stone and losing his left arm, protracted and unsatisfactory studio sessions – reference is made to sixteen months’ worth of songs having been junked – which involved a tired Mutt Lange, then Jim Steinman (who wanted a straight rock ‘n’ roll album), then Lange’s engineer Nigel Green, and finally Lange again. Add to this the fact that Lange’s painstaking production required a Herculean amount of work to make it the pop-metal Thriller he intended the record to be – every instrument and voice recorded separately, instruments being fed through the Fairlight and even the Rockman amplifier that had been invented by Tom Scholz of Boston – and you may understand why the thing took so long to do.

Like Boston’s records, Hysteria bears the air of superreal rock, something which sounds like rock and a bit like pop but somehow seems to have evaded the touch of a human being. Given that Pyromania had only made it to #18 in 1983 Britain, and that its lead single “Photograph,” one of the greatest pop records of the eighties, stalled at #66, it is not unreasonable to imagine the band striving to make something that would break them in their own country.

And so it was “Animal,” an almost immediate top ten hit in Britain, which gave them the domestic breakthrough; a subtle but enticing variation on the “Photograph” model with sublime moments of transition (the “I cry wolf” bridge from chorus back to verse), an Olympian false ending and an instant singalong appeal – but in the manner of gods singing down from the top of their mountain – all resulting in a terrific pop record.

Hysteria is basically twelve variations on Leppard’s one song – but what a song, and what an approach, and perhaps even that perspective is inaccurate; “Love Bites” plays like the Bee Gees marooned atop an Arctic iceberg, but was originally a country song. Songs like “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and “Armageddon It” are strictly Carry On Kerrang! territory, but the humour is good; like a robot AC/DC, you are relieved that they don’t take themselves that seriously.

Which is just as well, as Hysteria contains some of 1987’s most probing sonic adventures whose radicalism is more attractive for not being trumpeted as such; the first Young Gods album, Melody Maker’s record of the year, came out at more or less the same time and was perhaps scuppered by the expectations heaped upon it – a shame, since it and its 1989 successor L’Eau Rouge were hugely innovative records which could and should have changed the game, particularly in the sampler-as-aggressive-battering-ram/Varèse-quoting virtual guitar sense. I even remember “Jusqu’au Bout” being used as the soundtrack to an MM radio commercial! But the singer sang, or growled, in French, and so that, alas, was that in institutionally racist Britain.

As far as Hysteria is concerned, however, you have to applaud the band and Mutt Lange, on a record intentionally loaded with potential hit singles – so much so that its running time exceeds sixty-two minutes, i.e. you need to hear it on one of those new-fangled compact discs, grandad – for frontloading the album with its two least commercial songs. Granted that in this world it’s all relative, but “Women” was actually the album’s lead single in the States, presumably to reassure worried hard rock fans that the band hadn’t forgotten how to rock (it didn’t work, peaking at #60). It sounds like Foreigner gone severely South; the elements of an AoR ballad are all there but they are distended, disjointed – you can’t quite grasp them. In the meantime, how better to begin an album than with the creation of the world, especially if the result ends up sounding like Front 242 doing a full-frontal on “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”

“Rocket” is as severe in its adventure as fellow Sheffielders, the early Human League, with its not-quite-random dub drops and unexpected whirlpool echoes into nowhere. Like the League, Def Leppard took glam as a starting point – the Dolls, Mott, Ziggy, Queen – and a lot of the time sound like a super-recharged version of the Sweet. But the beat of “Rocket” is a Burundi/Ant rhythm, and even while Joe Elliott goes through musical memories of his past – and pace Chuck Eddy, he is clearly singing “Jean Genie” rather than “G.G.” – the music’s bottom abruptly drops out halfway through to make way for a strange assemblage of found noises and effects, including Elliott’s own multitracked choir, being played backwards from another song on the album. Compare with “Excitable,” which is like 1994 Primal Scream being dragged through the mire by 1985 Cabaret Voltaire, with a much more dynamic use of the “Dance To The Music” rhythm and an introduction of accelerating heartbeat, panting and climactic scream which could have come straight from The Covenant, The Sword And The Arm Of The Lord, and you see that this band’s investigations are missed at your own peril.

Actually Hysteria generally reminds me, not of other pop-metal or even of glam, but of sixties bubblegum; note the timid Monkees-like shrug of a quiet guitar chord which unexpectedly concludes “Women” or, more generally, the sheer catchiness of even the lesser-known songs, like “Don’t Shoot Shotgun” – Mitch Rider and the Detroit Wheels live! – or “Run Riot.” “Pour Some Sugar On Me” is the best use of the “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” beat this side of “Let’s Go All The Way,” while the closing “Love And Affection” might as well be Tommy James and the Shondells. “Hysteria” deploys silky, keyboard-dominant AoR tropes and diverts them in a surprising new direction, even if the chorus sounds like the Cowsills (this is a good thing). And when they go for a little bit of politics – the anti-militarist “Gods Of War” complete with obligatory Reagan samples (about bombing Libya) and Fairlight bombs exploding from channel to channel – the sudden rise to atonal fury is genuinely terrifying.

If, however, you were stuck in some no-mark small town in the mid-eighties, and this on the car stereo, or its songs on the car radio, represented a remedy, then it’s easy to see why Hysteria became so huge. True, there was a bit of a gap in the market – i.e. that absented by Van Halen when David Lee Roth left – but Hysteria - the second album of that name to be released by a major Sheffield group in the eighties - is more than that; it is one of the most decisive of eighties pop records, and also one of the least reproducible.

Monday 27 October 2014


(#350: 1 August 1987, 4 weeks; 5 September 1987, 1 week)

Track listing: I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) (Whitney Houston)/I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) (Aretha Franklin & George Michael)/If You Let Me Stay (Terence Trent D’Arby)/Lean On Me (Club Nouveau)/The Slightest Touch (Five Star)/Serious (Donna Allen)/I Want Your Sex (George Michael)/Respectable (Mel & Kim)/Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now (Starship)/Weak In The Presence Of Beauty (Alison Moyet)/Let’s Dance (Chris Rea)/Is This Love (Whitesnake)/Big Love (Fleetwood Mac)/Coming Around Again (Carly Simon)/Personal Touch (Errol Brown)/You’re The Voice (John Farnham)/La Isla Bonita (Madonna)/Under The Boardwalk (Bruce Willis)/Living In A Box (Living In A Box)/Ordinary Day (Curiosity Killed The Cat)/To Be With You Again (Level 42)/The Game (Echo and The Bunnymen)/April Skies (The Jesus and Mary Chain)/Incommunicado (Marillion)/(Something Inside) So Strong (Labi Siffre)/No More The Fool (Elkie Brooks)/Hold Me Now (Johnny Logan)/Can’t Be With You Tonight (Judy Boucher)/Wishing I Was Lucky (Wet Wet Wet)/Shattered Dreams (Johnny Hates Jazz)/Goodbye Stranger (Pepsi & Shirlie)/Star Trekkin’ (The Firm)

This was the last Hits compilation to top the charts. The series never managed to establish itself as a brand strong enough to compete with Now. Although the seventh and eighth volumes were arguably the strongest (and will be mentioned in future dispatches), the truce was over and both were trounced by the next two volumes of Now. The question is then left, as with all such compilations, what, if anything, the compiler(s) intended. In some areas it fulfils the traditional compilation function of acting as a trailer for artists’ individual albums – no less than eleven of these thirty-two songs appear (albeit not necessarily in the same form) on previous and/or future TPL entries – and in others it is an assemblage of the different ways in which 1987 mainstream pop viewed the world.

Whitney (A Slight Return)

Two additional things I should have mentioned in relation to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”; the castanet fillings in the first verse which date back beyond rock ‘n’ roll and turn up again and again over the decades, and Whitney’s high voice at fadeout, like a happy, fleeing, escaped bird free to enjoy the sky once more.

Otherwise, it should be noted that the distinguished, underachieving cast of Whitney also included Chuck Jackson (lyricist of “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?”), Gerry Goffin (lyricist of “You’re Still My Man”) and Jim Gilstrap (one of the backing singers). The main saxophone soloist was Kenny G. Once Whitney had worked with Archie Shepp, and I still regard her career as the equivalent of Aretha being marooned on Mitch Miller’s Columbia with no Atlantic Records to offer deliverance.

Aretha & George

At the time I was faintly irked that what seemed to me to be essentially by-the-book exercise in eccht-soul - co-written by Mr By-The-Book himself, Simon Climie, half of Climie-Fisher – was (and remains) Aretha's only British number one single to date. Worse, the only other contender even to come close, "I Say A Little Prayer," peaked at number four. Those who imagine the Queen Of Soul to have scored an unending fusillade of top ten smashes in the UK are in for a sober awakening on examination of her actual chart record; most of her hits typically made it to the mid-regions of the chart and no further. This raises a fear of Aretha's rawness not quite being "pop," and pop similarly being wary of Aretha, at least in a Britain which seemed to prefer their "soul" singers homely, British and preferably white.

Although Aretha's important work was more or less done by 1974, her revival took hold in the mid-'80s; Green's prophecy of "Aretha" coming back in inverted commas as a signifier of - you guessed it - Real Soul seems to have been fully fulfilled. The Eurythmics collaboration "Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves" is one of the most shameful disgraces in all of pop; Franklin forced to slum it in a gaudy mockery of her uncompromising demand for "Respect" a generation previously. But it worked in terms of bringing her back into the marketplace; apart from isolated sparks like 1982's "Jump To It," Aretha's career had dived into a troubled nothingness - debilitated by agoraphobia and legal disputes, she missed the chance to sing on "We Are The World." However, 1985's Who's Zoomin' Who? album, though perfunctory and plastic, was a great success, and that lay the ground for the George Michael collaboration; sad to say, from a commercial perspective Aretha in the mid-'80s probably needed George more than vice versa.

The recording of the song, as well as the video, went well enough; George, understandably thrilled at the prospect of working with Aretha, would gladly have sung the contents of that day's Woking And District Evening Chronicle. Aretha barely knew who George was but seemed to like him. In the video they symbolically perform before a huge video screen displaying monochrome footage of them in their younger years - another indication of signifiers outranking signified.

Nonetheless, time and experience have convinced me that it’s actually not such a dull record. Aretha outsings George with some immensity - hear her voice focus and bite on "Consumed by the shadows" (as though she is about to swallow the shadows) and "I was crippled emotionally" - but George himself displays evident boyish enthusiasm. The song is an agreeable Marvin and Tammi love-crosses-all-obstacles update. The trouble is that, despite the theme of two lost souls finally coming together, it is clearly impossible to believe in 42-year-old Aretha and 23-year-old George as a couple; the relationship is palpably one of mother and son, or teacher and pupil. The explosive "HOW COULD" of the line "How could you treat me so bad?" in the second verse of "I Never Loved A Man" - which you will not be surprised to hear was not a hit in the Britain of 1967 – might not have been an unfair question to ask the British public at some point.

Club Nouveau

They were from Sacramento, and were put together by Jay King following the break-up of Timex Social Club, who had been responsible for one of 1986’s best singles in “Rumors.” The name – French for New Club – was preferred to the original choice of Jet Set. Their “Lean On Me” is a pretty loyal reading of the Withers original slammed up to date by a crunchy electro Go-Go rhythm track, but the parent album Life, Love & Pain is better than you think; “Jealousy” is the answer song to “Rumors,” while “Why You Treat Me So Bad” later became the foundation of Luniz’ “I Got 5 On It.”

Five Star

“The Slightest Touch” sounds remixed and polished up from its Silk And Steel status, but the initial promise of a 1981 Duran Duran tribute is scotched by the helplessly non-persuasive singing and the song itself.

Donna Allen

“Serious” was never much more than Fisher-Price Janet Jackson, but Allen, from Key West, Florida (but raised in Tampa), gives it an agreeably serious thwack with her cunningly determined vocal. In case you’re wondering, the “you sure make me feel like loving you” turned up again as a sample on Strike’s 1995 top five hit “U Sure Do.”

“I Want…”

…which is how the puritanical and hypocritical BBC billed the song (see also “Healing” by Marvin Gaye). George sounds greedy, impatient and eager – and in the middle of 1987, to produce such an aggressively pro-sex record was an act of some bravery – but, like Mick Hucknall, he also believes in monogamy and the no-sex-without-love way of things (as the video demonstrates). It sounds like he’s listened to recent Prince, and somewhat less recent Bee Gees, but it was a pleasure to hear it again here. However, we will be getting to the “full” version – and addressing the question of what does a teen idol do when faced with the requirement to grow up – when we look at the song’s parent album.


Finally, emerging out from what was in danger of becoming a suffocating museum of pop music, we have a number one which actually sounds like 1987. While Stock/Aitken/Waterman always seemed to pull out an extra stop with the Appleby sisters, the cheerfully brutalist futurism of "Respectable" still comes as a much-needed slap of freezing water in the face to wash away the mould of respect and dignity.

"Respectable" doesn't quite match “Showing Out,” but its potent, carnal zipping and unzipping of keyboards together with its crashing breaks and rollercoasters of vocal cut-ups ("Take take TAKE take taytaytay taytay TAKE take") is like being thrown from one end of a rainbow to another. The SAW team keep the lyrics minimalist and sharp ("Explanations are complications," "Conversation is interrogation") as well as defiant ("Like us, hate us, but you'll never change us"), and the instrumental break with its Marshall Jefferson synth riff and vocal cackles is exhilarating.

Much of the power of "Respectable" is down to mixmaster Phil Harding, who was also responsible (together with, some say, SAW themselves undercover) for producing the hardcore Essex industrial-electro collective Nitzer Ebb ("Join In The Chant," released about a month later, is the exact obverse of "Respectable"). But the record also sets an important precedent; with its unapologetically proud stance and fuck-you attitude – it is actually SAW’s declaration of revolt and individuality, and the words of the chorus stem from a full-page advertisement that the team placed in Music Week - it is the clearest antecedent to the Spices and Saints and Alouds who would follow in their path, and perhaps also a ground-breaker in British girl group pop; I have tried hard to think about precedents to Mel and Kim, but in terms of girl groups, they had previously tended to be demure, homely and unthreatening - the Caravelles, the Paper Dolls, the Pearls, the Nolans; an extension of pre-rock memes. Only Bananarama, who made a point of co-authoring their SAW-produced hits (Waterman later described them, albeit not pejoratively, as the hardest act he'd ever had to work with), stand as a workable comparison point (the post-punk explosion of Slits and Raincoats and Girls At Our Best being a parallel, though not quite pop, phenomenon; but hey, what about Bostin’ Steve Austin by Fuzzbox?). However, the slipstream of subsequent girl pop is very much in Mel and Kim's wake. Their sole album, F.L.M., did very well – although there were clouds on the horizon to which we will return. However, "Respectable," in demonstrating absolutely no respect for history, dignity or respect itself, helped steer pop back into its future.


Taken from the abysmal 1987 romcom Mannequin, in which Andrew McCarthy builds a dummy which turns into Kim Cattrall (and a young, wary James Spader keeping his countenance in the background), "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" - not to be confused with Samantha Fox's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Me Now," which was in the top ten at the same time - is the archetypal slushy, bombastic AoR song suitable for such glossy sub-entertainment, composed by time-serving pros Diane Warren and Albert Hammond, and there would be little point in going any deeper into its shallow pond of artistry were it not for the immense sorrow of the knowledge of whom Starship once were.

Perhaps the saddest moment of the whole song (and its video) is the point where Grace Slick enters with her Morticia Addams cackle of "Let 'em say we're cra-ZAY!" and does that regrettable leer and finger-twirl at the camera. There are two ways of interpreting this; either Grace is signalling to us: "Hey, we know this is shit, but we need a hit, and y'know, underneath the gloss it's still us!" or (the worse and likelier option) they are trying to shanghai us into thinking that nothing has changed, that this is the way Jefferson Airplane would eventually have flown in any case (almost needless to say, Slick, presumably horrified that she had become what she once beheld, quit the band).

Not surprisingly, you will search the archives of the British singles chart for "White Rabbit" and "Somebody To Love" in vain. The strangeness and stridency of the 1967 Grace Slick, however, did help lay the path for the Siouxsie Siouxs and Kristin Hershes of subsequent decades; and I suppose it's a comfort of sorts that twenty-eight years after "Delicate Cutters," Hersh has not approached Warren for a singalong moneyspinner. But to see Slick, Kantner and Balin prostitute themselves so gladly on the Reaganite catwalk - "We Built This City" may have been a terrible record, but at least bore the ghost of rebellion with its "corporation games" - is like viewing reformed Communists being paraded at bayonet point before the cameras, forced to recant their past ideological "sins." Thankfully, this was about as bad as 1987 number ones got.

Alison Moyet

The NME put Raindancing at number one, but from subsequent interviews it’s clear that Moyet didn’t enjoy making the record at all, and I think the intent was to airbrush everything that was individual and special about her with a view to catering to the baser needs of international Top 40 radio programmers. Actually, “Weak” isn’t that bad a song, or at least wasn’t when its authors Floy Joy recorded it, but Moyet abhorred it and is clearly sleepwalking through her performance.

Chris Rea

Just so you know and I don’t have to tell you again; I am a huge Chris Rea fan, and if you can’t deal with that, other music websites are available. His music is intelligent, irresistible and warm like a pair of rock slippers, and “Let’s Dance” was his first really noticeable hit single. The music is jaunty and positive, with the subtlest of reggae touches, and Rea’s vocals and guitar are demonstrably different from, and more pleasing than, Mark Knopfler’s. The theme? The world is falling to bits, but what the hell – let’s enjoy ourselves anyway. We’ll be getting back to the man from Middlesbrough.


Their big power ballad (but not their biggest hit; that’s still to come) and originally intended for Tina Turner to sing. Cue David Coverdale’s long mane, Tawny Kitaen posing on a car in the video (as per all Whitesnake videos of the period – but she did go on to marry Mr Coverdale). All very agreeable and stops just short of being Reaganrock.

Fleetwood Mac

Tango In The Night is yet to come (though came out in April 1987 – it was a slow burner) but “Big Love” offers object lessons to the Starships of that world how to survive from the sixties, but with dignity. Lindsey Buckingham sounds like an especially pained Orbison, the building blocks of pointillistic backing vocals indicate a familiarity with Art of Noise – but the final, dread-filled build-up and cutoff, powered by Mick Fleetwood’s inimitable rolls, confirm that, although there are different voices at the front, this is recognisably the same group which recorded “Oh Well.”

Carly Simon

An apt title, since in Britain Carly Simon seemed to average one top ten hit every five years. But this was from the rather dark Mike Nichols/Nora Ephron comedy Heartburn, with Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson and others, and reaches back to the Simon of “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.” She’s at home, part of the family, reaching middle age, and like Bonnie Tyler in “Total Eclipse” she’s collapsing into pieces (“So don’t mind if I fall apart/There’s more room in a broken heart”) – paying the grocer, fixing the toaster, breaking a window, screaming a lullaby. “I believe in love” she sings, over and over, in a manner that suggests what she is caught in isn’t love.

Errol Brown

Why didn’t Errol Brown’s solo career take off? The utter unremarkability of “Personal Touch,” a song written by its singer but with all the life produced out of it, and not much of a hit, is a clue, but the fact was that few of the millions who had kept Hot Chocolate in the charts for almost a decade and a half associated the name “Errol Brown” with “the guy out of Hot Chocolate.” They knew who they were and who he was, but not necessarily what he was called; Brown has admitted having the same problem with UB40 and Ali Campbell. Then again, performing Lennon’s “Imagine” at a Conservative Party election rally shortly before “Personal Touch”’s release probably didn’t help either.

John Farnham

Australia’s Cliff Richard (although he was originally from Dagenham), Farnham has been a superstar in his adopted homeland for fully fifty years but “You’re The Voice” is the only hit he has had in Britain. A fine hit it is too, with lyrics by ex-Procol Harum right-hand man Keith Reid, rousing bagpipes and an admirable we’re-not-gonna-take-it attitude in its throaty singalong chorus (I note that both sides one and two of this collection end with protest songs, or declarations of intent). Especially huge in Scotland and Canada.


It's hard to tell which is the more depressing - that even at this stage Madonna was still prepared to put her name to sentimental package tourist schmaltz like "La Isla Bonita," or the fact that so many people were prepared to buy (into) it. Then I looked at the sleeve of True Blue and was reminded that the song was co-written by Madonna, which is arguably more depressing than either of the above.

It wasn't yet summer when the song topped the chart but there is the unmissable stench of suntan lotion and unwieldy coaches about its "te amo" and "when the samba played" and "your Spanish lullaby," clearly aimed at the kind of visitor who wishes their Spain to be as close to Britain as possible, who would never dream of venturing into Goya country because, well, where's the sea and there isn't a pub for miles. Perhaps "San Pedro" is a confluence of flesh and spirit which foretells "Like A Prayer," but Madonna's performance is so listless - there are moments when she sounds as though she is struggling to remain awake - and the song so lifeless that the interest simply isn't generated. The solar paradise is oddly desolate, and the song's moping minor key conjures up the picture at the end of the Plath story "The Green Rock" when David and Sarah revisit the childhood beach they loved so much, only to find a small enclosure of sand and a green rock which formerly served as castle, sailboat and mountain but is now, stripped of the smallness and innocence of childhood, literally nothing more than a green rock.

Bruce Willis

Oh, the ignomity. Not just of whatever was left of the Temptations in 1987 demeaning themselves, or of Willis’ own atrocious vocal (in)abilities, or the dreadful HBO television “special” which accompanied no less than TWO top ten hits. But of the fact that the British public could vote Thatcher in for a third time and send this abominable record, which you or I could have sung better, to number two because HE’S ON TV and HE’S A HUNK. Soul, Passion and Honesty? This is what you end up with – bad sub-music (there’s such a thing as good sub-music? Does nobody remember Happy Flowers?) which you hide at the back of your singles forever until it’s time to send it to the charity shop. This is what happens when slavish adherence to The Past gets in the way of The Future happening.

Living In A Box

They were from Sheffield, and like Terence Trent D’Arby, lead singer Richard Darbyshire subsequently turned up on the B.E.F.’s Music Of Quality And Distinction Volume Two. Bobby Womack’s reading sweeps this one out of the room but to be fair it does have a hell of a lot more character, personality and force than some of the other stuff with which it had to cohabitate at the end. The song following it on this album, for instance.

Level 42

Don’t worry, we’re going to be looking at Running In The Family, even though it was never a number one album (it finished second to The Joshua Tree), and “To Be With You Again” makes much more sense as a sequel song to “It’s Over,” which immediately precedes it on the LP (and whose single mix will turn up in a future TPL entry), and fits in with the record’s general theme of the collapse of the bond of family in Thatcher’s Britain. But this is purposeful, sad, grand and affecting, as if showing all of its supposed peers elsewhere on this record how this sort of thing ought to be done.

Echo and The Bunnymen

And so we finally get to them, near the end of their first incarnation. Like “Bring On The Dancing Horses,” but more convincingly, there is a sense of stepping back here; I’m sure they realised that U2 had won that particular war, for better or worse, but already they’re looking back with no regrets: “And it’s a better thing that we do now,” McCulloch sings, sounding remarkably like Stephen Malkmus will sound, “Forgetting everything, the whys and hows/While you reminisce about the things you miss/You won’t be ready to kiss…goodbye.” Ten years later they will say, much in the same autumnal mood, that nothing lasts forever. But go back to those first four albums – especially the second - and remind yourself just why so many people were prepared to…well, those were the times.

The Jesus and Mary Chain

I’m not sure that note-for-note recreations of Psychocandy are the way to go; wasn’t that what the record, the group, was supposed to be against in the first place? Oh, the stories I could tell you (for a competitive fee) about Billy Sloan’s Radio Clyde show, Rhythm System and the Mary Chain back in 1984 Glasgow.

But while the group were, in 1985, rightly lauded – stuck-up rock critics mouthing about “Nag, Nag, Nag” and Swell Maps were suddenly made to look very old indeed – they realised that the feedbacking couldn’t go on forever, and so Darklands, reversing the formula so that we got sweet, melodic songs with degenerate lyrics. “April Skies” finally got them into the top ten, and it is chiefly memorable for the struggle that is going on within the song – the old amplifier roars fighting to get back into the picture. Best song on the album: “Nine Million Rainy Days” – rarely has the “Sympathy For The Devil” template sounded so quiet and so threatening.


Quite the most uproarious and unhinged “rock” song on this collection; Fish wants to be a big star but not the tacky kind. This he does by providing the best Roger Daltrey impression I’ve ever heard, while the band behind him does their best to join the dots between “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and Van Halen’s “Jump.”

Labi Siffre

And so we come to the fourth, I suppose you could call it “adult,” side…and it begins with a protest song whose targets are not that obvious. Absent from the charts as a performer for fifteen years, Siffre had written “(Something Inside) So Strong” with a view to getting another performer to sing it, but when no obvious performers could be found, he offered to record it himself.

Its protest is slow, patient, angry and righteous; he is not merely protesting against South African apartheid (as if any protest of that kind could be dismissed as “mere”!) but also against anti-gay prejudice, at a time when, as now, it appeared to be thriving. Defiant and proud, “(Something Inside) So Strong” was a richly deserved top five hit.

Elkie Brooks

Opening and closing with slab-like electronic footsteps, it was good to see the other Vinegar Joe lead singer achieve her first hit in over four years, and indeed the biggest hit of her career. Written by Russ Ballard, “No More The Fool” is a deliberately grandiose fuck-you power ballad which Brooks delivers with titanic aplomb – as if she’d been waiting all her life to sing the song.

Johnny Logan

Hardly anybody on this album is happy, are they? Logan’s ex is going off with somebody else, but there is time for one final show of love, or so he hopes. But it was his great Eurovision triumph, seven years after he first won it (he remains the only performer to have won the contest twice), and I well remember how overcome with emotion he was at the show’s end. So were the hundreds of thousands who sent the song to number two.

Judy Boucher

So few of the songs on this record get revived now. You never hear “Can’t Be With You Tonight” now, despite its spending a month at number two and becoming 1987’s eighth best-selling single. I had to remind myself how such a record could seemingly rise and sink again without trace – and the answer was television, specifically TV-AM, whose keep fit instructor “Mad” Lizzie Webb used the song as her exercise background music.

Boucher is from Saint Vincent in the Caribbean, and Felix da Silva wrote many of the songs that she recorded, including “Can’t Be With You Tonight.” In truth it is a dreary, plodding record; the central situation of I love you but I love him so I can’t do it with you tonight is reiterated and mansplained endlessly through what seems like an eternity. I have already noted the huge influence of Nashville radio stations on the development of Jamaican music, but really this is a song that a sixty-five-year-old Jim Reeves could have sung, had he lived to do so.

Wet Wet Wet

The first appearance for the boys from Clydebank, and a reminder that in eighties music there were two Glasgows and two Americas. First, the smooth pop/soul people who saw the America of New York, Hollywood, Sinatra and glamour; second, the ragged indie folk who saw the America of the Velvets, Big Star and Lee Hazelwood. Thus Wet Wet Wet and the Mary Chain; the Pastels and Hue and Cry.

But “Wishing I Was Lucky” is a very angry record indeed; our hopeful goes to London on the premise of finding work, only to find the gutter and a Government and industry which don’t give a damn. The glossy ABC-ish approach is not entirely successful in hiding Pellow’s fuming rage. The record fades before it can explode.

Johnny Hates Jazz

Their first and biggest hit, and a surprisingly durable, if mild-mannered-sounding, record with touches of Crowded House in the chord changes and harmony arrangements, and it is not really about a cheating lover: “You said you’d die for me – woke up to reality.” For its American release, a video was shot, directed by the younger David Fincher. We’ll be getting back to them a few times.

Pepsi & Shirlie

Looking through the BBC/Radio Times Genome programme, it became clear to me how and why Pepsi and Shirlie were so successful in the first half of 1987; they were never off the television, always turned up. “Goodbye Stranger” – nothing to do with Supertramp – is a finely bitter uptempo soul-pop record, such that at times you have to remind yourself that it isn’t a Wham! single (George Michael, making his third appearance on this record, contributes discreet backing vocals).

The Firm

Nowhere near as irritating as it was when Radio 1 was playing it two hundred times a day, and actually quite a funny, astute and well-made record provided you hear it once in a generation. It’s an odd sign-off song with which to “bid farewell” to the Hits series, but I suppose it’s a protest song of sorts. But is that really Bill Drummond doing Scotty, and what does the speeded-up ethereality of the fadeout tell us, other than of the Space album to come. Then again, Rubettes guitarist Tony Thorpe and Moody Boyx mainman/KLF “Groove Consultant” Tony Thorpe are not the same person, so who’s to know?

Sunday 26 October 2014

Terence Trent D'ARBY: Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D'Arby

(#349: 25 July 1987, 1 week; 30 January 1988, 8 weeks)

Track listing: If You All Get To Heaven/If You Let Me Stay/Wishing Well/I’ll Never Turn My Back On You (Father’s Words)/Dance Little Sister/Seven More Days/Let’s Go Forward/Rain/Sign Your Name/As Yet Untitled/Who’s Loving You

The first thing to ask is that, if you were around at the time and old enough to remember, you try to forget the gargantuan typhoon of hype and hoopla which surrounded, and was in great part propagated by, Terence Trent d’Arby in 1987. In every interview he gave – and in 1987 he gave many – he was intent on impressing on our brains what an original visionary he was. All that bumfluff about his first record being the best album since Sgt Pepper, and a lot of people wanted to believe that it was, or could be. The problem for him was that, around two-and-a-half months earlier, an album had been released that many people thought WAS the best since Sgt Pepper – Prince’s Sign “" The Times. “I think it was overrated myself,” huffed d’Arby, not entirely convincingly, in an interview that September, but I’m sure he would allow himself a little smile at the fact that his album made it to Then Play Long, whereas Sign "" The Times did not (it peaked at #4, behind Now 9, The Joshua Tree and Level 42’s Running In The Family).

While that statistic doesn’t in itself make Hardline the better record, it is not an uninteresting or unengaging one.  There is a lot of unorthodox juxtaposing of different musical elements, if nothing new or innovative as such. Indeed, tropes like the whirligig calliope on the “choruses” of “Wishing Well” and even the solemn metronomic electronic procedurals of “Sign Your Name” become more understandable when you realise that d’Arby co-produced most of the record with Martyn Ware; much of Hardline plays like a buffered-up mid-period Heaven 17 album (on the long, ruminative “Let’s Go Forward” we could be in the middle of a Tina Turner session).

d’Arby’s vocal stylings mainly fall under the standard gospel  category; the pained Sam Cooke growl is there, and the 1987 Rod Stewart is nowhere in it, although he presses down on the whooping and laughing buttons a touch too often. On “If You Let Me Stay,” he seems so intent on professing his ability to testify without fear that the listener is in danger of missing the abrupt lyrical turnaround in the middle eight, where he barks “Your pretensions aim for gullible fools/And who needs you anyway?,” suggesting that this may not quite be a song about a departing lover. Equally, “Dance Little Sister” is a call to live and survive rather than a get-up-and-dance romp.

However, there is one influence – and it might not be in a one-way direction – on d’Arby’s singing that nobody seems ever to have mentioned, and that is Michael Jackson. Given the startling job the latter had done with “Who’s Loving You” some years before, you would have thought somebody might have picked up on that, but there are times when high innocence and low gruffness combine to give a preview of the less cuddly Jackson whom we will be seeing in the nineties. The opening “If You All Get To Heaven” – one of the record’s more adventurous songs – plays with time and perspective, its (relatively) quiet and distant verses suddenly veering into a loud foreground with a doomy chant (featuring an instantly recognisable Glenn Gregory), and its hoped-for global fury (“Old men’s cigars puff up the wars/To protect their fuck-ups again/Young men must die/To keep the old ones alive/And to prove they’re studs once again”) is an uncanny ancestor of “Earth Song”’s multiple “what abouts?”

Most remarkable of all are the closing two songs. One “As Yet Untitled” is entirely acapella, with occasional multitracked choirs somewhere between the Beach Boys’ “Our Prayer,” and Daryl Hall’s chorale on the “Preface” to Fripp’s Exposure, and is about an American, lost in different parts of America, and then Germany, and now London, wondering in horror at what his country might have turned into. “I don’t like the vibe I catch when I walk the streets of America,” he said in 1987, “so why should I put up with it if I can find somewhere else where I can eventually raise kids or whatever?”

But he can’t get away from America, either. Midway through the song, he pauses:

“Y’see, my daddy died to leave this haunting ground
And this same ground still haunts me.”

He rages, he is quiescent, he is heartfelt. “I’ll return a stronger man,” he sings. “I’ll return to me, my homeland/No grave shall hold my body down/This land is still my home.”

It’s the same story, isn’t it, and it is an intensely moving performance. That “me” in the middle of the prepenultimate line quoted above suggests that like another Piscean, the late Mr McGoohan, d’Arby is furiously intent on ensuring that he is his own man. But you can run away from Manhattan, and Chicago, and Daytona Beach, and Orlando, and the 3rd Armored Division in Frankfurt (I wondered whether Chuck Eddy might have known d’Arby, as he was in that area around the same time, but Eddy actually served as a First Lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps), and the Bojangles (a band with whom d’Arby briefly worked in 1986 and who provide the backing on much of Hardline), and even change your name – since 2001, he has been legally known as Sananda Maitreya - and still never get away from yourself, or the land from which you came. You are obliged to take yourself with you. And so “As Yet Untitled” is a performance – a declaration of principles, if you must – which I think can speak to, and for, anybody who is far from their home.

He signs off the performance with a chuckling “Meanwhile, on the other side of the world…” before segueing into the best version of “Who’s Loving You” you ever heard, a suggestion perhaps of what another version of Michael Jackson might have grown into. Generally, Hardline tosses much of what pretended to be Soul, Passion and Honesty in 1987 into the cockiest of cocked hats; like the Hendrix of late ’66, this is a version of the “real thing” convincing enough to pass for reaiity. If d’Arby had a fellow traveller that year, it was Bono; both the ominous Volga choir-throated “Seven More Days” and “Let’s Go Forward” see him restlessly, if slowly, searching for something that he cannot quite uncover. He promised to go off the aesthetic scale with the next one, and so he did; Neither Fish Nor Flesh is one of the eighties’ greatest and bravest albums, and few of those who had bought into the Hardline were patient enough to listen to it. Unlike Prince, he has not had a seldom-broken stream of platinum records since then. But Hardline at least suggests that the hype was camouflage for distressed and disorientated melancholy. Supporting musicians included the aforementioned Bojangles, as well as pros like Mel Collins, Frank Ricotti, Nick Plytas and Lance Ellington, and the old Rip, Rig and Panic rhythm section of Bruce Smith and the late and great Sean Oliver (who helped write “Wishing Well” and, at the time of the album’s release, and according to its credits, still owed d’Arby “ten quid”).

Friday 24 October 2014

Whitney HOUSTON: Whitney

(#348: 13 June 1987, 6 weeks)

Track listing: I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)/Just The Lonely Talking Again/Love Will Save The Day/Didn’t We Almost Have It All/So Emotional/Where You Are/Love Is A Contact Sport/You’re Still My Man/For The Love Of You/Where Do Broken Hearts Go/I Know Him So Well

It is October 1986, somewhere in a studio which could be in New York or California. The times look brighter to some and resemble, or represent, the end of days to others. There is, not for the first or last time, considerable concern over whether there is much to do or say in a pop song any more.

“Yeah, your love is real
I might as well sign my name on a card which could say it better
See, time will tell
‘Cause it seems that I've done just about all that I can do”
(“For The Love Of You”)

What was left to say about the need or craving for love in the mid-eighties? We had been conditioned by “society” – which, according to at least one person in charge at the time, did not exist – to look to and within ourselves, to comfort our deeply disturbed selves with what, or whom, money could buy, to live for ourselves first, as Ayn Rand had instructed. And if the zipping up was not morally voluntary, then for many it became a matter of survival, for the virus had become known and was spreading.

“Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there's gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows”
(Leonard Cohen, 1988)

Pop – by which I mean the mainstream which for millions was the only line of communication open, despite the multiple provincial revolutions that were happening – had by the mid-eighties become an increasingly joyless and grim affair, practically ashamed of itself, for being pop, being trivial, even being happy, when the code was to grow up, become introspective, mournful and politely accusatory. It was deemed necessary that pop and its media should concentrate on pleasing life’s “winners”; the couple driving home from the theatre, or to the restaurant, wanting to hear something reassuring on the car radio. It was vital that pop should pretend that pop – or, specifically, that dinosaur exhibit called rock ‘n’ roll – never actually happened. It is hard to explain to audiences of today how difficult or impossible it was to access pop’s back catalogues in those last pre-CD days. Much of it was out of print, or appeared only erratically. Those NME writers who a year ago voted for Pussy Galore’s 1986 demolition/reconstitution of Exile On Main Street as the 253rd greatest album ever made were either dining out on wishful thinking, or listening to the album online; the original run of 550 messily-designed, individually-numbered cassettes sold out almost as they were released. Although not technically out of print, you still had to hunt for the original.

But many people had no time for trifles like that.

March, 1987, a dull and wet Thursday trip to the Rough Trade shop off Portobello Road, and there is an odd twelve-inch white-label single in the racks. “All You Need Is Love?” “Samples the Beatles,” said a clearly baffled assistant. Intrigued, I paid my £1.99 and took it home.

A lengthy and probably illegal sample of “All You Need Is Love” followed by the MC5 screaming for the jams to be kicked out, motherfuckers, followed by John Hurt’s “No known cure” boombox baritone from a public information film specifically designed to scare people shitless and the advertisement’s accompanying Yamaha DX7 dies irae bell tolls (which itself was unexpectedly echoed in other music of the period; see Django Bates’ commentary in the final moments of “Would I Were” on Loose Tubes’ Delightful Precipice).

This was then succeeded by a rough Scottish “rapping” voice – “We’re the hottest MCs on the River Clyde” indeed! – intoning fierce proclamations about southern Texas in the late seventies, about “the sixties” being a gigantic hoax, the last gasp of unqualified capitalism, with cuts from Samantha Fox’s “Touch Me (I Wanna Feel Your Body)” and a group of children singing “Ring-A-Ring O’Roses,” a late nineteenth-century nursery rhyme said (probably inaccurately) to date from the time of the Great Plague; nevertheless, the song’s first set of published lyrics, in Kate Greenaway’s 1881 edition of Mother Goose; or, the Old Nursery Rhymes, say “Ashes! Ashes!” (relating to cremation of the body) rather than “A-tishoo! A-tishoo!”

There are various references to something called the “Justified Ancients of Mu Mu,” and then, about halfway through the record, the mood, if not the beat, changes abruptly, and a solemn pair of female singers make themselves heard:

“My child is dying and there’s nothing I can do,
Just wait and watch and pray to God for a miracle to break through.
You preach and teach about the life I have led,
But tell that to my little boy who’s just turned two.”

The refrain persists and builds (with a sudden irruption of Drummond shouting: “I DON’T WANNA DIE!”). The record’s two main elements eventually combine and the whole thing ends with Bill Drummond screaming: “WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?” to the response of a terrible silence. It felt like the last record that could possibly ever be made, pop or otherwise.

But back in October 1986 – probably at the same time that “All You Need Is Love” was being put together – in one of those recording studios in New York, or California, a woman has had enough.

It begins with bass synthesiser and drum machine curled up, asleep, like a cobra. There is the cowbell setting from the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer which is now being heard on so much pop, from Man Parrish to Mel and Kim. Gradually, Randy Jackson’s bass synth stirs into life. A woman is scatting, sparsely, with diminishing nervousness: “Uh…Yea-ea-eah…WHOOOOOO!!!”

The bass synth rears up on itself and tears a hole through the song’s dark fabric, so to let the light in better. A synth trumpet section, and somewhere a real alto sax, play a jolly riff, and the woman gains confidence: “Well, won’t you dance?” she asks her listeners, secure in the knowledge that her “WHOOOOOO!!!” has ripped up popular notions of pop, either her pop or that of others.

“Clock strikes upon the hour
And the sun begins to fade
Still enough time to figure out
How to chase my blues away”

Behind her “clock” we distantly hear a sound which could almost be the dies irae iceberg leitmotif. But it is clear that she is running out of time to love, that the world as she and love knew it is closing down, regardless of how happy or unhappy she was with it, or living in it.

“I’ve done alright up ‘til now
It’s the light of day that shows me how
And when the night falls, the loneliness calls”

Her “light” is reasonably confident and forthright, but when the night falls, she becomes quieter, and the music crouches down with her as if to confer. With her “the loneliness calls,” she sounds as if she knows that she is standing on the verge of an abyss. She knew everything about the world in the “light of day” but is scared by this new, and perhaps less welcoming, one. But Jackson’s bass is there to roar reassurance back to her, and the chorus is an extended plea for life and future masquerading as pre-Beatle girl group joyousness. “With! Some! Body who LOVES me!”

In the second verse, she recalls losing her senses, spinning through the town (whose town? Where?) and a fever which has now ended. Gradually she is becoming accustomed to the encroaching darkness, with a view to fighting it.

“I need a man who'll take a chance
On a love that BURNS hot enough to LAST”

She makes sure that we don’t miss those two emphases.

“So when the night falls
My lonely heart calls”

She is still vulnerable, but, I would say, no longer scared (she now personalises her loneliness). At least not within the confines of this record; on the second chorus, she stretches out the word “heat” over four bars, and terminates it with an ecstatic gasp. If only, goes the subtext, she had been allowed more of this.

The song was written by Seattle duo George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, who had written “How Will I Know?,” the clear standout from her eponymous debut album, and were asked by producer Narada Michael Walden to come up with something similar (professionally they recorded as Boy Meets Girl, and scored a huge hit at the end of 1988 with “Waiting For A Star To Fall”). But Walden wasn’t too sure about the song when he heard the original demo; too much like country music – he could imagine Olivia Newton-John singing it, but not Whitney. Nevertheless, he slept on the question of how to turn it into a dance record, and he succeeded; it was the singer’s biggest hit to date.

“Somebody WHO, somebody WHO” croons a light girl group in the background.
“To HOLD me IN his ARMS OH!” roars the singer in response, rolling those emphases to stop them getting stuck in her body.

But the second Whitney Houston album wasn’t very good, or it was one dynamic pop-resuscitating song plus ten fillers, or it was Clive Davis seeing her as the next Barry Manilow, or Michael Jackson, and suffocating her in a one-size-fits-all aesthetic jiffy bag. Look at the Richard Avedon cover, marvel at her twenty-three-or-four-year-old joy and cheek, lament that she didn’t get the post-punk/House/bubblegum/Sub Pop/hip hop career she deserved.

For there are far too many schlocky easy listening ballads designed for middle-aged divorcées, produced to the point of numbness. Whitney was much too young to sing things like “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” and “I’m Still Your Man” and listening to them is a numbing experience, as if it were still 1954, or 1975, and despite the calibre of people involved – both Mike Gibbs, who once did arrangements for Bill Fay, and Gene Page contribute string and horn charts and sometimes conducting, but to little avail (although Gibbs’ hovering strings underscoring “Just The Lonely Talking Again,” an excellent Sam Dees song turned into Mars Bar glucose, suggest the continuing influence of Ives’ The Unanswered Question). Speaking of 1975, her “For The Love Of You” is not a par on the Isleys’ original, losing the patient West Coast percussion patter of the original and, more crucially, Ronald Isley with all his “oooooh,” “well well well” and “oh darling” asides – the original came from the album The Heat Is On, a pioneering record which firmly divided itself in two; three fast, funky jams on side one, three drawn-out proto-quiet storm slow jams on side two. Somebody, probably Davis, wanted Whitney to remain sexless.

But slothy sludge like “Where You Are” and “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” was not what Janet or Anita was aiming at in the mid-eighties – indeed, it is startling how Whitney appears to shout the entirety of “Didn’t We…” as though protesting against having to sing this by-the-book mush, so enraged that her key doesn’t necessarily change when the song’s does, and her final, sustained “ALL” resembles a buried scream. Can’t you see who I am underneath all this corporate camouflage, or what I want, she seems to be asking; okay, you’re not making me up to look as though I were forty-four, like you did on the cover of the first one, and there’s no Jermaine Jackson duet schmaltz, but what you do want from me – pop’s St Agnes of Rome?

Even the other uptempo songs don’t really pack the punch of “I Wanna Dance.” “Love Will Save The Day,” produced by John “Jellybean” Benitez, utilising a Yamaha RY-30 beatbox and featuring guest vibist Roy Ayers, comes closest, insofar as she sounds and presumably felt like the jazz singer she should always have been. But on “So Emotional,” this record’s “rock” track (featuring one Corrado Rustici on guitar synth), she sounds at times drunk – the dazed opening commentary of “I don’t know why I like it – I just do, ha ha ha!,” for instance. As for “Love Is A Contact Sport” – presumably an attempt to “do” Madonna via the Vandellas – this is purulent sub-Ferris Bueller piss that she has no business being forced to sing. Quite frequently, her compressed squeals and screams sound as though she is being stretched on a medieval rack.

Worst of all is her “I Know Him So Well.” You want show tunes, prematurely middle-aged yuppies – well, here’s one to finish. Quite apart from demonstrating that Streisand has nothing to worry about on this front – although the ballads really are on a par on the rubbish Streisand sang in A Star Is Born – whoever came up with the idea of having Whitney duet with her own mother on a song about two women who have both known the same man, who in turn has clearly been bullshitting both of them, must bear the burden of cooking up perhaps the wrongest idea in Then Play Long to date; as Lena said, the wrongness of this concept cannot be over-emphasised, and I think may go towards explaining why her career and life subsequently went the way they did.

“I need a man who'll take a chance
On a love that BUUUUUUUURNS hot enough to last
So when the night falls
My lonely heart CALLS!”

It calls for a triumphal key change, at least – and it is evident that Whitney has irrupted the cosy fabric of mid-eighties pop and thrust herself into the foreground. Now she is liberated and can do anything; she laughs with, or at, the musicians, she dreamily whoops as though she is the age she was at the time when the picture on the back cover was taken (“Whitney Elizabeth Houston, 3 months”). She is born again, and pop with it. Consider that by the time she was Whitney’s age, Madonna had only got as far as “Everybody,” a disco invitation, or instruction, which left no doubt that “everybody” would end up dancing with her.

But Whitney howls “OHOHWOHWOHOHHWOHH DON’T YOU WANNA DANCE SAY YOU WANNA DANCE WITH ME BABY” against a Nabucco slaves’ basso profundo chorus, in the knowledge that she now owns this song. It is the only point on the album where she sounds entirely herself.

* * * * * *

A few months later, the second Justified Ancients of Mu Mu twelve-inch single appeared. A more “official” twelve-inch of “All You Need Is Love” had been released in the meantime, with the Beatles sample drastically cut down and the Samantha Fox samples re-recorded; it was redolent of copyright compromise and felt watered-down. But the second single sounded more professionally recorded, less worried about itself, if only slightly. Built around samples from the Mission: Impossible theme and Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft,” Drummond begins the record by sounding very anxious indeed, as if Whitney joining the JAMs was the only option left if pop music were going to be saved. He begs her to hook up, and after a bit of this, the familiar Roland TR-808 pattern starts up in the distance and Drummond cheers as though Christ had returned to Earth. No one could have conceived a record like “Whitney Joins The JAMs” if they didn’t fundamentally love pop music, and the KLF recognised that if pop must survive, so must Whitney. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” was her key out of the Reaganpop dungeon, but no Cowell figure was (yet) required to confiscate it again. What could she have done? Where could she have turned? She could have been at the forefront of what was already making itself known as New Jack Swing. But the first major New Jack Swing star was…Bobby Brown. As the doomed man once sang on a record, which also featured Cissy Houston in the background, “We’re caught in a trap, there’s no way out.” “With somebody who LOVES me!” “All You Need Is Love.” Where did we hear that before?
(Many thanks to Rob Morgan and Ian Wade for clarifying my uncertainty with regard to eighties drum machines)

Thursday 23 October 2014

SIMPLE MINDS: Live In The City Of Light

(#347:  6  June 1987, 1 week)

Track listing:  Ghostdancing/Big Sleep/Waterfront/Promised You A Miracle/Someone Somewhere In Summertime/Oh Jungleland/Alive And Kicking/Don't You Forget About Me/Once Upon A Time/Book Of Brilliant Things/East At Easter/Sanctify Yourself/Love Song-Sun City-Dance To The Music/New Gold Dream

"In short, all one had to do was 'stretch out' a little, put the Pinocchio Principle into play, and double-lives started falling from trees.  With this strategy in effect, three-minute songs became five-minute work-outs, five-minute-workouts got a coda and became eight-minute journeys, eight-minute journeys got a coda, a prologue, and a drum solo..." "A Thousand Points Of Light," I Wanna Be Sedated, Phil Dellio & Scott Woods

While listening to this album - no, let's say I endured it, like a long and only sometimes interesting journey by bus - I wondered just when the 1980s ended.  Did they end on December 31, 1989 as the calendar dictates?  Or did they end a lot earlier?  I can remember how eager some were to get out of the dreadful 1970s at last and into the 1980s, but here it is, the spring of '87 and I can sense that this thing, a throwback to the double live albums of the 1970s, is not really the way forward.  Instead, it's a rather grandiose and yet flimsy step back.

The main problem, as not mentioned in the packaging anywhere, is that John Giblin's bass wasn't quite what it should have been, and thus their previous bass player, Derek Forbes, did some overdubbing to make the songs from New Gold Dream and Sparkle In The Rain sound better.  Unfortunately, his greatness - he remembers how the songs actually should be played - isn't matched by the rest of the band, who are by this time Once Upon A Time road warriors and leave no subtlety unsquashed, no yearning trudged over by sheer sonic greed. The songs that sound the best are the most recent ones; everything else is either slowed down or done in a way that makes me wish they had done a live album much earlier, c. 1982, when a sort of ferocious economy made them sharp and the incredible brightness and perpetual OOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHSSSSS of Jim Kerr weren't so frequent or meaningless.  Kerr's voice is as good as ever, but there is just too much overwrought mountaintop yelling, and not nearly enough of the mystery and intrigue that made this group famous in the first place.  Forbes sticks out like a sore bassist's thumb here, and what was supposed to be an improvement just ends showing up the rest of the band (save for Michael MacNeil, who gets moments of real beauty here, trying to recall the delicacy of the band, a delicacy that gets ignored most of the time) as retrograding prog-rockers let loose upon a hapless Parisian public.*

I mean, since when was "Promised You A Miracle" reminiscent of "Eye Of The Tiger"?  Since when is "Once Upon A Time" supposed to be like "Louie Louie"?  The songs drag on (this album seems longer than it is) with guitar solos, hushed moments where the true meaning of "Oh Jungleland" is apparently revealed (which makes me want to listen to Springsteen instead), where songs that actually deserve drama are underplayed ("East At Easter" tries for awe and fails, "Book Of Brilliant Things" is just exhausting) and "Big Sleep" is done all wrong.  It's a hushed song, the sort that led Scott Walker to get New Gold Dream's producer to work with him (which he still does - Peter Walsh co-produced Soused) - dark and whispery and creepy and oh yes...beautiful. That slinky and eerie side is gone with Simple Minds live c. 1986, and what has replaced it is just...ugh.  The medley of "Love Song" and "Sun City" and "Dance To The Music" is awkwardness upon awkwardness.  They can't play "Love Song" at all, "Sun City" is like a bumpersticker signifier, and singer Robin Clark introducing the band is just embarrassing.  There are ways and ways of doing a medley, but this is terrible, nothing near the amazing medley that Echo and the Bunnymen were wont to do within "Do It Clean" (where they'd stop and throw in "All You Need Is Love" and "Sex Machine" and whatever else Mac felt like singing).

The biggest disappointment is their complete inability to end an album - and hence a concert, I guess? - with a halfway decent version of "New Gold Dream."  Now, I didn't expect them to recreate the well-I-regard-it-as-legendary-anyhow 12" version, the sort of 12" that even CFNY didn't play that much as I and they must have figured anyone who heard it would be utterly transfixed and incapable of doing anything, including breathing properly.  (More gushy enthusiasm of this sort will be available in TPL #464.) It's a great way to end a show, but it's so tepid and halfhearted here, and yeah Kerr can't yell "81-82-83-84!!" anymore, but it's one hell of a song and should be some kind of climax...but instead it's done perfunctorily, a stale piece of cake at the end of a ho-hum obligatory dinner - "Old Rusty Nightmare" as Marcello put it, and reason enough to think that the 1980s do not have much time left, if this is what the result is:   great-to-reasonably-good songs that are pumped up or deflated, with only the bassist to anchor them, which isn't nearly enough.  The clock is what I kept looking at while listening to this; the clock is also ticking on the 1980s, with new (or new to TPL) voices about to emerge.

Next up:  Is music worth it? 


*"Someone Somewhere In Summertime" was recorded in Australia and has overdubbed and unfortunately kind of pointless violin from Lisa Germano, which isn't her fault.  The original song is one of space and wonder and hope, and here's it's all meh, with again only Derek Forbes providing any clue as to how great a song it was to begin with.