Sunday 24 May 2015

Chris DE BURGH: Flying Colours

(#373: 15 October 1988, 1 week)

Track listing: Sailing Away/Carry Me (Like A Fire In Your Heart)/Tender Hands/A Night On The River/Leather On My Shoes/Suddenly Love/The Simple Truth (A Child Is Born)/Missing You/I’m Not Scared Anymore/Don’t Look Back/Just A Word Away/The Risen Lord/The Last Time I Cried

(Author’s Note: “The Simple Truth” only appears on the CD edition of this album, but is so central to the record’s emotional story that it would be remiss of me to omit it.)

To be considered in conjunction with:


Track listing: Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)/Lose My Breath/Cupid Come/(When You Wake) You’re Still In A Dream/No More Sorry/All I Need/Feed Me With Your Kiss/Sueisfine/Several Girls Galore/You Never Should/Nothing Much To Lose/I Can See It (But I Can’t Feel It)

A story here of two Irishmen, neither of whom was born in Ireland and both of whom travelled somewhat before settling in Ireland, not that far away from each other. Chris de Burgh was born in Argentina and spent time in Malta, Nigeria and Zaire before coming to County Wexford; Kevin Shields was born in Queens, New York, and grew up there and subsequently in Long Island before his family moved to Dublin. Both men’s early interests in music were sparked by close encounters with future musicians of note; de Burgh was keen on joining The Perfumed Gardeners, a group run by his peers at Marlborough College, only to be turned down by the group’s leader, one Nick Drake, for being either “too poppy” or “too pushy” (sources vary). Meanwhile, in late seventies Dublin, Shields and his schoolmate Colm Ó Cíosóig put together a punk band called The Complex. On bass they recruited another schoolmate, Liam Ó Maonlaí, but the group split when Ó Maonlaí left to form Hothouse Flowers.

From there we can proceed straight to the two records under consideration here, as this is not an encyclopaedia of rock. Flying Colours came out at the beginning of Ocfober 1988 and is the only Chris de Burgh album to reach number one in Britain; Isn’t Anything appeared seven weeks later, in mid-November, and did not trouble the charts at all until it was reissued in 2012. One received fulsome critical praise; the other was barely mentioned in despatches. But one earned its right to be in this story, and the other only by invitation. The one and the other in these two instances are not the same records.

Yet I believe they are linked. How so? Not just because of the nationalities of the musicians involved (although the two female members of MBV are English) but also because they also represent two extremities of how we view and treat love and our relationships with each other and with the world. One might invoke the old parable of the classicist versus the romanticist, except that there is clearly a lot about Chris de Burgh that is unashamedly romantic, and it is difficult to go through any of Isn’t Anything’s thirteen songs (both albums have an identical number of tracks) without being aware of their “classic” precedents. Or perhaps it’s simply the case that each record is performed at a similarly high level of emotional intensity from two highly divergent angles. Romas Foord’s cover art for Flying Colours suggests somebody taking off from the planet altogether, at a distance, while Joe Dilworth’s treated photos for Isn’t Anything has the group painfully close up, yet smudged and blurred, as if you might only be imagining that you’re looking at it, at them.

Flying Colours strikes me as the work of a deeply worried man.  It is true that at the time de Burgh was only just turning forty (as opposed to Shields’ twenty-five). By now he was the father of two children, his daughter Rosanna and his first son Hubie, as is made evident by the lullaby “Just A Word Away.” So it was probably natural for him to be worried; in addition, given his Irishness, it is important to remember that in 1988 the Troubles were never far away (in the song “A Simple Truth” he sings about “a country torn from the south to the north”), and the spectres of soldiers and war are summoned here twice – and, by implication, also in the quietly defiant song “I’m Not Scared Anymore,” where he is lying in bed with his wife, thinking of their children, and for one rare moment his voice rears up into a roar: “Well I know I’ll protect them with the power of my love/TO THE VERY LAST DROP OF MY BLOOD!”

So much of Flying Colours concerns itself with protecting himself, and his family, from the world of shadows and night. On his own he is not to be trusted; wandering some foreign city in “Sailing Away” he struggles against temptation (“Underneath the red lights, I am watching where the shadows fall”) and only overcomes it with some difficulty (whereas “Don’t Look Back,” the nearest this record gets to uptempo, is a warning against those lights and “red and black” which the narrator, it is implied, fails to resist, with the song’s dying refrain of “I should have known better”). In the record’s most comical moment, “A Night On The River,” he has an argument while nightswimming with his lover, who promptly takes off with both the car and his clothes.

But the record cuts deeper than that. “Tender Hands,” “Suddenly Love” and “Missing You” are love songs from different but parallel angles – the first describes his pained loneliness, the third sees the narrator and his lover reuniting after a long time apart but its music-and-wine scenario is darkened by hints of paranoia (“You see, if I think you are beautiful/Someone else is going to feel it too”). The second, meanwhile, sees him surrendering to a sensual bliss as complete and enveloping as that described in “Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)” with a sustained synthesiser dying of the light at the end which put me in mind of American Music Club’s “Last Harbor.”

Elsewhere, “Carry Me” is a moving and obviously heartfelt song about bereavement (“for Mark and Lynda, with love” reads the dedication). The narrator of “Leather On My Shoes” leaves his home, which has nothing concrete to offer him, to travel down an unspecified “freedom road,” possibly the same road the battered, exhausted, hallucinating protagonist of “The Risen Lord” is wandering however many decades later. “The Simple Truth” is the record’s centrepiece, a protest against the Troubles and the wider world running itself down to ruin (“The life of a child is more than a border/The life of a child is more than religion”) and all other twelve songs lead towards or away from it. The closing “The Last Time I Cried” returns to the soldiers/war scenario, and possibly more than that – what the first two verses are implying is pretty frightening – and seeing both the faces of his child and himself in the picture of a soldier, he breaks down: “Eli Eli Lama, Oh Lord, you have forsaken me” – the same words in Hebrew and English. This is not reassuring music.

Certainly, I’m bound to say, it does not reassure me. There is little doubt, listening to the record, that Chris de Burgh is essentially a decent and honourable man, if sometimes a rather silly one. Like Jon Bon Jovi, he knows precisely what his demographic is and how to package his music to reach them – and that’s a rare thing to find in a musician. I would say babyboomers approaching middle age, conservative with a small “c,” perhaps slightly disappointed by both the world and the paths they have elected to take through it, with dimming memories of how things used to be; such people in the eighties would have understood Flying Colours instantly, and these are the people whom de Burgh is trying, with great skill and artfulness – the album sounds spotless and precise, recorded as it was in Zurich with co-producer Paul Hardiman, who once produced Lloyd Cole and The The - to touch and perhaps move.

But I’m just not moved by it. I was certainly never a target listener, and so while I can appreciate what de Burgh is doing, I have to admit that it does not touch me or change the way I walk through the world. Naturally that is down to me and the way I am, rather than any failings on de Burgh’s part, and I hope that this tentative appraisal is of more use than the “oh, Chris de Burgh, hyuk hyuk what a lot of crap” crap that emanates from some unintentionally hilarious commentators; it has always been the purpose of this tale, not to sneer at records, but to find out why they were so popular and what they had to say to evidently so many people.

As I say, however, there is this other Irish record from the autumn of 1988 to consider.

“I'm telling you you're a sick mind
You come back so fine, so fine”
(“(When You Wake) You’re Still In A Dream”)

There are other ways of going down the railroad tracks and never coming back.  More bad prose has been written about My Bloody Valentine than any other musical artist and I do not propose to add to that pile (indeed, in respect of the interviews which I sourced for this piece, I do not intend to name or shame the journalists who wrote such poor copy – always you have to refer to what MBV themselves say to get to the heart of things). Conversely, no major musical artist is more talked about and less heard than My Bloody Valentine. You will scan the digital likes of 6Music and xfm largely in vain for their music. It does seem that radio, much like the public, has great difficulty acclimatising itself to MBV’s work; there is the residual feeling that even now, more than a quarter of a century on from when this music was conceived and recorded, MBV is a little too disturbing for placid middle-aged radio listeners, represent a bridge that no demographic dares cross. Yes, I got MBV when they happened, and so did all the people I cared and care about...but most, if not actively running away from their music, are passively unaware of it.

How Isn’t Anything works is really very simple.  If its music represents rock stripped of most things that make it “rock” – except, crucially, for the sex – then the record recollects memories of rock as being the only way to push rock forward. This Kevin Shields did by essentially removing all “guitar” from the mix; what you hear is the “reverse reverb” effects unit (the Alesis MIDIverb 1, to be specific, which was bought for the band in error; the unit had no “reverse reverb” facility as such, but Shields was so impressed by the sounds he got out of it that he kept it). In other words you are listening to the “ghost” of a guitar throughout.

Always while listening to Isn’t Anything – largely because of Colm Ó Cíosóig’s aggressive, rhetorical  (“Nothing Much To Lose”) and exceptionally physical drumming – the listener is aware of illustrious sixties (and contemporaneous eighties) influences. But the music of MBV was really unprecedented in rock; the Creation had never done anything like this, and neither had even Sonic Youth. So the songs here are attack without any attacking  - “Several Girls Galore” and “Cupid Come” frankly leave the Mary Chain standing (or sidewalking, albeit entertainingly) – or embrace the listener with a fetid but oddly pellucid closeness that resembles an indistinct but quietly determined whisper in one’s ear.

At its best, as in the single “Feed Me With Your Kiss”, voices and instruments lunge towards the listener from entirely unexpected perspectives, like Sonny and Cher being Doppler tested. The group seem intent on pummelling this desire into the ground – how many beats or breaks does the song need? Not even Hüsker Dü had gone that far. It is as if the kiss is so powerful it will violently dismantle the DNA of the love song for good.

I think the essential difference between this record and Flying Colours is that they stand on opposite sides of the same line in the sand. Flying Colours will never cross that threshold because it sees no need to do so; everything the artist wants to express is expressed plainly and without ceremony. But Isn’t Anything sounds as though it has made the quantum leap to the other side; looking desire and dirt directly in their faces and learning to live with them, allowing their implications to alter the molecular structure of what this music represents. Isn’t Anything comes down on the side of adventure, of risk, facing down the fear of failure.

Those who know and love the record will have their own memories of the time it appeared and how they reacted to it, and – for now – I’m going to keep mine to myself. I will say, however, that my favourite moments of Isn’t Anything are the slower ones; the closing “I Can See It (But I Can’t Feel It),” which is almost a flag-waving finale and the closest the record comes to a conventional rock song; the wondrous “All I Need,” powered only by a slightly irregular heartbeat - as atrial fibrillation finally takes hold, the song rapidly fades amidst a sheen of Fairlight, giving us a frustrating glimpse of a future that lies beyond that which this record implies; the staggering “No More Sorry,” its freeform drone fanfares surely inspired by the closing section of Keith Tippett’s Frames and hiding one of the most frightening of all female vocal performances, by Bilinda Butcher (“Filthy Daddy”); and above all the dazed “Lose My Breath” which Butcher sleepily sings as though “rock” is slipping away from her grasp – above all because it is a song about her infant son, Toby, and his asthma. Recorded largely in Wales, as well as a couple of studios in London, over a two-week period on an average of two hours’ sleep per night or early morning, Isn’t Anything is a gauntlet thrown down to the rest of rock of which only the most superficial elements have since been picked up (one Mancunian, twenty-one years old in 1988 and transfixed by this record, springs to mind). I suspect that a surviving forty-year-old Nick Drake would have wasted no time addressing it.

(Envoi: perhaps the deciding factor is the seven-inch instrumental single which came with initial copies of the album. "Instrumental No 1" is a standard MBV "rock" backing track which evidently never received a lyric or any vocals. But "Instrumental No 2" plays like the ghost of rock retreating from the world altogether; wordless choruses - are they voices or effects boxes or both? - intonating a lament over a suspiciously familiar rhythm track. Why, it's "Security Of The First World" by Public Enemy, and it's a small world, after all.)

Saturday 23 May 2015

BON JOVI: New Jersey

(#372: 1 October 1988, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Lay Your Hands On Me/Bad Medicine/Born To Be My Baby/Living In Sin/Blood On Blood/Homebound Train/Wild Is The Wind/Ride Cowboy Ride/Stick To Your Guns/I’ll Be There For You/99 In The Shade/Love For Sale

If you were closely reading the British music press in 1988 then you’ll remember that the buzz was all about “The Return Of Rock.” Actually this had been building up since 1986 (Raising Hell, Licensed To Ill) and those observers who warmly welcomed the unbuttoning of the tense punk fly remained wary of actual present-tense mainstream rock as it was happening; Appetite For Destruction, which took fully two years for British audiences to assimilate, might have been the elephant in this room, for it was rarely, if ever, spoken of. It may well have been that Slippery When Wet, happening without the permission of the music press (except, it should be noted, for Sounds, who had been raving about them since 1984), also set some of this off. But what else in 1988 was being passed as representing The Return Of Rock, and how much of it is still spoken about today?


Terrible cover and title, and I played side one to death and side two maybe twice. Objectively – oh for heaven’s sake, we’re talking about the Butthole Surfers here – it was no Locust Abortion Technician, which still terrifies. Yet “Jimi,” which took up most of side one, was both draining and liberating at the time. Unburden yourself of punk-induced year zero chastity, let those ghosts come flooding back into your speakers; the grandiloquent Hendrix guitar, the gruff Ginger Baker drum shuffle, and what were those speeded-up or slowed-down voices except old dreams reasserting themselves? Moving into noise, and then the heavens clear and we are left with a patient acoustic pastoral with background sounds which are not quite natural. It was like saying; yes, everything before 1976, come back, mean what you meant then but mean it more and now.

MEGADETH: So Far, So Good...So What!

Solemnly conceptual lyrics, masterful control of heavy metal dynamics and a vividly misheard “Anarchy In The U.K.”; if this had come out on SST (like, for instance, the moderately entertaining Sabbath tribute act of Saint Vitus) it would be venerated, although objectively – oh for heaven’s sake, we’re talking about Megadeth here – it isn’t quite Peace Sells...But Who’s Buying? For noise that’s less wary of being funny at the same time, see Anthrax’s State Of Euphoria.

METALLICA: ...And Justice For All

The New Jersey to Master Of PuppetsSlippery When Wet, except they persuaded Vertigo – the label, let it not be forgotten, which released Hot City Nights – to let it stand as a double, and it was one more key step to the reformulation of metal attained in this record’s 1991 sequel. “Harvester Of Sorrow”’s mixture of blood and ennui puts it in the same street as Michael Gira, while “One” – good morning, Vietnam? – delineates a musicians-following-the-flow-of-the-melody template very similar to that of Throwing Muses, although its eventual extremities owe more to Big Black (over the group Steve Albini fronted between Big Black and Shellac and which released an album in 1988, I shall place a discreet veil of silence).


Dismissed by some at the time as "Freak Scene" plus support acts - well, it is one of its decade's greatest singles - Bug is quite an agreeable stylistic bridge between Metallica and the Pixies. "Yeah We Know" slows rock down to a leisurely but still determined Generation X crawl before Gen X, strictly speaking, happened, while the closing "Don't" - everything that both Elvis and Ed Sheeran implied in their own similarly-named songs - features not J Mascis screaming "Why don't you like me?" (you may choose to hear a different verb in that line) but Lou Barlow, indicating not only the bleak road half a decade in rock ahead but also that a split was imminent. Green Mind or Sebadoh III? You take your pick. 

PIXIES: Surfer Rosa

Everything that most other alleged pop albums of 1988 tried (not) to be, an old-fashioned bang! bang! hit after hit rock ‘n’ roll record which I can still sing from start to finish unprompted. “Broken Fist” took the Wedding Present to Jupiter, “Where Is My Mind?” was the best Bowie song of the eighties (from the evidence of Tin Machine, Bowie would appear to have been in agreement with this) and “Gigantic” was a feminist love song for ever. And yet in 1988 4AD terms they were still playing a cautious second to...


One staggering debut (which I saw them perform on stage in late 1986, at the Town and Country Club in Kentish Town, third on the bill behind the Cocteau Twins and Dif Juz) and an enthralling mini-LP later, the Bostonians’ second album proper was very much stocktaking time, its bookkeeping made immortal by the closing “Walking In The Dark” – who could forget Hersh’s stark “I can’t forget you DIE!”? – where we wait and wait, and yet the performance predicates the future; the patient, piano-led, midtempo harmonic wanderings at the song’s core foreshadow nineties R.E.M., but Hersh’s unstable vocal gurgles now remind me, in retrospect, of someone else entirely, someone who in 1988 was not yet born. “I can’t say it ‘til you grow a face.” Of course...she’s preparing the world for Taylor Swift.

SONIC YOUTH: Daydream Nation

Objectively – oh for heaven’s sake, we’re talking about Sonic Youth here – Sister is the dividing line and pound for pound probably the better record. Then Geffen wanted them to have hits and afterwards they were left to develop what they’d implied at the end of Evol but only really begin to investigate in Daydream Nation and that’s a feminisation of rock tropes; “Teen Age Riot” and “Silver Rocket” run by like bubblegum waterfalls but there’s an absence of bottom, an emphasis on the treble, the indistinct, the need for a different way of thinking and performing to come through. It may be that Kim Gordon’s time studying art in Toronto imbued the band’s music with Canadian factors but comparisons with “Death Valley ’69” etc. are like comparing early AACM work to the average ESP-Disk rave-up – there’s more space to think and act, and it’s not just because of the heartfelt Joni Mitchell tribute (how many Daydream Nation fans bothered with the same year’s Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm? I refer you specifically to “The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms)” and “The Reoccurring Dream”; with its array of celebrity singers and shifting concerns about “Number One” the record plays like an Escalator to the daydreamed nation).* “Total Trash” goes somewhere you didn’t expect it to go but the group no longer feel the need to rush into “difference.” Side three embraces the AMM/1983 merman within the group while the long fourth side sums everything up and leaves the future open.
* I could also cite Neil Young’s Eldorado five-track EP with its furiously slow crunch of attack; three of the five songs, remixed and edited, appear on 1989’s Freedom. But “Cocaine Eyes,” which didn’t end up released anywhere else, sounds and plays like the elephant in Daydream Nation’s waiting room. Then again, Daydream Nation's co-producer Nick Sansano also worked on "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos."


Appearing right at year’s end and bought by me from the Covent Garden Rough Trade shop, almost as northwest as North America can be without turning into Canada, the compilation contains work by the band who began building the new daydream nation (Beat Happening’s “Pajama Party In A Haunted Hive”) and those who completed it. At the time the smart money was on Tad – big, photogenic frontman, agreeably reverence-free attitude to Rock – and the not-so-smart money on Mudhoney (whose cover of “The Rose” is barely recognisable as such, and that’s not necessarily a good thing; they do better as Green River, mainly because the latter’s guitarist ended up in Pearl Jam). Soundgarden (with the label’s anthem) and the earnest Screaming Trees  (who get through Hendrix’s “Love Or Confusion” better than the Butthole Surfers would have done) were barely noticed, Steven J Bernstein’s phlegmatic ramblings can be passed over...and nobody said a word about the group responsible for “Spank Thru.”

The song begins quietly, guitar and rhythm staking out their places. The vocalist begins to talk quietly, although the “soft pretentious mountains” continue to sound more like “soft relentless mountains” to me. Then he begins to sing, and slowly everything increases in intensity, and there is a sense of architecture possibly unique on this record. But because it didn’t wave the flag of sensationalism it wasn’t regarded. Wasn’t there already a sixties psychedelic group called Nirvana?
New Jersey was originally going to be a double album, entitled Sons Of Beaches, but their record company (Mercury in the USA;  here it came out on Vertigo) persuaded them otherwise. Perhaps they felt the band didn’t have enough strong material to sustain a double, although at nearly fifty-seven minutes long the album as we have it is sizeable enough. Moreover, the hour of listening goes by surprisingly quickly. Recorded at Little Mountain Sound Studios in Vancouver with experienced Canadian producers to hand (Bruce Fairbairn was the principal producer, Bob Rock engineered and mixed), New Jersey succeeds in capturing a characteristically Canadian “big” sound. The record essentially plays like a stadium concert, complete with entry-of-the-gladiators extended intro (“Lay Your Hands On Me”), and throughout plays as you’d expect; big, meaty, non-specific anthems-in-waiting about love, life and the world, like a Ladybird Books (or Commando comics) edition of Springsteen. Even with exercises in sustained self-doubt (“Living In Sin”), the music hits the blue collar heart with a directness which I suspect a lot of other bands at the time envied (suppose the Four Seasons had been a generation younger and grown up on Zeppelin).

To me it’s all much of a muchness, to the extent that one scarcely notices when one song ends and another begins. But it’s not unlistenable or unpleasant, even though some fans of Slippery When Wet might have felt slightly let down. “Bad Medicine” is a rocker conceived with such astuteness that Elvis Costello subsequently covered it, and both “Born To Be My Baby” and “I’ll Be There For You” invite hands in air and lighters aflame (Desmond Child contributed some direct inject anti-rock ray gun into four of these twelve songs, one of which also involved Diane Warren).

It should also be noted that side two follows a slightly unexpected country path.  “Homebound Train” is the antithesis to Tom Waits’ “Train Song,” full of unresolved Catholic guilt (“You can’t dance if you take  a chance on your rosary”) and nudge-nudge rocker winks (“Don’t take no ‘plane/Better take a train/’Cause I like it real SLOW”) but overall acknowledging that what’s done is done, and like Tony Orlando and his yellow ribbon he is coming back home. Most of this side is engaging country-metal (there’s even a fake field recording in “Ride Cowboy Ride”) which resolves satisfactorily with the aforementioned “I’ll Be There For You” before we get an old-school NJ party-down anthem in “99 In The Shade” (“I’m gonna see those sons of beaches”) and a nice acoustic blues workout to close – “Love For Sale,” complete with giggling studio chatter and Jon Bon Jovi proving he’s a far better harmonica player than certain other frontmen on other 1988 number one albums. I found New Jersey in its stripped-down-in-all-bar-sonics Hysteria manner to be a lot more listenable than it would have been a quarter of a century ago – but in terms of 1988 rock, nobody spoke of it, one way or the other, at the time, probably because it had, and has, no subtext other than providing straight-ahead but imaginative rock-pop music to the working classes. The Return of Rock, yes – but with the most elemental, yet most efficient, purpose, namely, to rock.

Thursday 21 May 2015


(# 371: 24 September 1988, 1 week)

Track listing:  I Want To Break Free (Queen)/Alone (Heart)/New Sensation (INXS)/Crazy Crazy Nights (Kiss)/Summer of '69 (Bryan Adams)/Big Log (Robert Plant)/I Want To Know What Love Is (Foreigner)/Wonderful Tonight (Eric Clapton)/Livin' On A Prayer (Bon Jovi)/Hot In The City (1988 Remix) (Billy Idol)/Start Talking Love (Magnum)/Here I Go Again (U.S. Remix) (Whitesnake)/Lavender (Marillion)/We Belong (Pat Benatar)/Look Away (Big Country)/Spirit Of Radio (Rush)

The information on this album is scarce; from what I can tell it was advertised on tv and even at this late date, if the timing is right (as it clearly was here) enough people bought it to get it to #1; it may well be that this is the last such compilation that appears here.  So much of this album has been covered by TPL already that I may as well get those out of the way first, with their relevant parent compilations....

The first song here is by Queen and is a current R2 staple, though at this time I guess most of these songs were R1 staples.  Anyway, it's on NOW 3 and I'm bound to get to it at some point again, knowing how beloved Queen are, and all.

I wrote about Heart on NOW 10 and it's still scary, maybe even a bit obsessive.

Kiss are just as meh as ever, also on NOW 10, and like I said before, they were so much better when they wore makeup and didn't think of doing solo albums.

"I Want To Know What Love Is" appears on the otherwise wretched Agent Provocateur.

I have nothing to say about "Wonderful Tonight" save that I'm not sure I'd marry a man who wrote this song about me, but, well, that's rock 'n' roll I guess.  There is a live version of this on his new career retrospective, which coincides with his Royal Albert Hall concerts.  Of course.

Much more about Bon Jovi soon; for now this union rocker is on TPL's NOW 9 review.

This compilation's title Hot City Nights comes from "Hot In The City" by Sir William Idol, and Marcello wrote about it on NOW 11

I also wrote about Whitesnake not making any sense on NOW 10, though I note they still have their fans, as they too have a new album out, as the appetite for rock never really goes away.

"Lavender" by Marillion is on Misplaced Childhood, and I bet if the original lineup got together they could still do something interesting, considering the current political circumstances.

As you can see that's a lot of this album dealt with already, so, here comes the rest...

If I hadn't had my Plath reasons, when in London, I probably would have ended up staying in Earls Court; I was told it was full of Australians, though I didn't really know what, if anything, that implied.  I figured they were upbeat and friendly and cool, just as INXS were, because everyone liked Kick. Why?  It was rock and it was poppy and they had a sax player as part of the band and Michael Hutchence was clearly into it. They'd had a hit with the rockin' "What You Need" in N. America (from Listen Like Thieves) and were huge in Australia and ready to take on the world - they finally got a break in the UK with "New Sensation."  It's big, optimistic, loud, upbeat, with the consoling "you're only human, what can you do?" big shoulder of the band to lean on.  (According to a quote on wiki, their label didn't want to release Kick as they thought it was..."They said there was no way they could get this music on rock radio. They said it was suited for black radio, but they didn't want to promote it that way.")  Yup, future singles like "Mystify" and "Never Tear Us Apart" were never gonna make it on rock radio.  The mind boggles.  Is Kick a great album?  Of course it is, but all their dumb label could think about was marketing.  Already you can sense a shift in what rock is, and in fact this album already feels like a half-relic showing what was, amidst the flood of the new, whether it be from the UK, US or Australia.  (In case you've wondered why it sounds like there's a bit of plucky acoustic stuff in there - INXS were fans of XTC and for all I know named themselves that way in tribute.)

I have heard "Summer of '69" so many times now, especially since I lived in Canada for a good long time and it's practically an anthem there, that it's hard to remember when Bryan Adams was this guy from Vancouver (by way of Kingston, lest anyone forget) with an annoying manager who didn't like CanCon and he made stadium rock like this which may well be about an act of love and not a year, if you know what I mean. It's done so straight and Adams is clearly more in love with music than he is with this girl that even with this idea in mind, it's still not a sexy song.

Following that comes Robert Plant and "Big Log" is about driving along, thinking about the one you love - but it's very laid-back and Plant doesn't really howl at all here, just moseys along, taking his time, "my love, my love is in league with the freeway" and there is pleasure in this coolness compared to the huffing and puffing elsewhere.  Plant's band are laid back too, just strolling and time open up and pause as the road goes by, as "passion will ride."  Rock 'n' roll is about escape, but also about being pulled by desire, and this song contains both, with Plant sounding like the veteran he is, by now.

Speaking of the Midlands, here is Magnum and "Start Talking Love."  Magnum are from Birmingham, they are rock and this song is from their seventh album and yet I don't really know them and based on this song I can't say I actually want to know about them.  They have their fans (a live album of theirs made the charts just recently) but when I think of 1988 and rock I don't really think of this...

...this is a huge digression, but anyone who reads TPL must know I digress, so.... truth my idea of rock is being turned and altered all the time in '88, alongside so much else;  so much so that one of the best albums of the year is rock, sure, but not rock as Magnum would understand it.  It's ....

Lincoln by They Might Be Giants.  I really cannot say enough about this album besides it has more wisdom, sympathy, wordplay, invention and so on than anything which was considered (such an 80s phrase) "cutting edge" at the time.  I won't go through every song (there's 18 of 'em) in detail as part of the joy of TMBG is that there are surprises, puzzles, things which make no sense logically but do emotionally, not to mention ineffable moments that are hard to describe.  The proto-Gen X rant of "Stand On Your Own Head"; the sublime "Where Your Eyes Don't Go"; the anti-war "Pencil Rain"; the late Baby Boomer rock anthem "Purple Toupee"; the misery of saleswork in "Snowball In Hell."  There is something here for everyone, from those in love to those who love the bottle too much, from pure pop devotees to jazz fans, to fans of just weird songs that make no sense (I still am wondering what "Cage & Aquarium" is about).  It is just greatness, and yes, I will write about their next album, Flood, when the time comes....

...and now, back to Hot City Nights (cue photo of a city at night when it's hot).

Pat Benatar is one of those figures who were always there on the radio, from 1979 onwards; she had hits in N. America years before breaking through in the UK (with this song and then "Love Is A Battlefield") and was so tough-sounding (and classically trained, too!) that I could admire her, but never love her.  She is such a great singer, though, that she can make any song take on more meaning than it actually has (not that "We Belong" has no meaning) and even give meaning to songs that otherwise would be a mess (does anyone know what "Red Vision" from Seven The Hard Way is about?).  Benatar always seems to deal in absolutes and extremes, a very rock stance, and she is a feminist, singing about (for instance) "Hell Is For Children" before child abuse was a more acceptable topic for songs later in the 80s/90s.  And like so many here, she is still out there touring, if not making new music.

"Look Away" is on NOW 7 and originally on the album The Seer and it's a sad song - though busy-enough that you might miss it. I mention it here separately as Big Country's music is so important in understanding how things are now in Scotland, and it is too bad that this is where their appearances, however slight, on TPL end.  I often wish I could get in a time machine and save various musicians at various times, and Stuart Adamson, who should have lived to see what is happening now (imagine Big Country at the Commonwealth Games...).

And now, quite unexpectedly, we go to Toronto.  Turn to 102.1 on the FM dial, and hear....CFNY, the Spirit of Radio!

Yes, in a kind of closing/opening loop that seems to be my motif for '88, here are Rush, Canada's own Ambassadors of Rock and they are singing a song inspired by the very station that I am, at this point in '88, still listening to, though in a different way (see previous entry).  The song circles and swirls around itself, a song about the magic of radio and music and the energy of both ("invisible airwaves crackle with life" - music as the life force).  Music, which can get bogged down in "endless compromises" but nevertheless soars and conquers, even as the salesmen and corporate forces strive to make rock 'n' roll  (the spirit of freedom and defiance and I'm yes being idealistic here good humor and generosity and energy)...well, there's that and there's the world of radio with its playlists, prejudices and sometimes suspicious DJs to flatten everything out and make it a commercial enterprise.  Rush released this on January 1, 1980 to show their fans they knew what time it was, that the 80s were going to be different and to praise a station that was trying to do something different in the commercial context - to be alternative long before such a word was used to describe music.

This song stands for a whole huge period in my life that, in '88 terms, hasn't disappeared but is starting to wane; a feeling that I was connected to the wider world through one station, that life itself could be improved and mediated through music alone.  With my interest in language, rhyme and literature in general coming back, I was leaning harder on the music I loved and leaning hard now too on the written word, and finding things in it I couldn't find in music.  The numbness I experienced in London was still there, sure, but the sense of purpose and even mission I had with language was taking over.  Rock 'n' roll says that sometimes you have to strive to figure out your voice - and that was what I was doing, as well as sensing that music was (coincidence?) beginning to shift alongside me.  Hot City Nights is the music of my youth, for the most part; the kind of stuff I'd hear at the mall, booming out of fellow students' cars, on Q107 or CHUM* - CFNY played INXS and Billy Idol and Big Country and Rush, of course.  The red-purple night, the zooming head and tail lights of the freeway cars, the rock life wasn't to be mine, not in quiet Oakville it wasn't.  But with poetry and hip-hop and new ways of thinking about music were taking over, and making that version of rock seem old-fashioned, indeed.

*Other radio stations in Toronto, The Mighty Q being the main rock station in town.     



Tuesday 19 May 2015

Kylie MINOGUE: Kylie

(#370: 27 August 1988, 4 weeks; 19 November 1988, 2 weeks)

Track listing: I Should Be So Lucky/The Loco-Motion/Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi/It’s No Secret/Got To Be Certain/Turn It Into Love/I Miss You/I’ll Still Be Loving You/Look My Way/Love At First Sight

“Watching Alice rise year after year
Up in her palace, she's captive there”
(Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, “Watching Alice,” from the 1988 album Tender Prey)

Neighbours premiered on BBC daytime television on Monday 27 October 1986, just over fourteen years since restrictions on daytime television hours had been lifted. ITV had taken immediate advantage – Emmerdale began as an afternoon soap – but the BBC, fatally cautious as ever, hummed and hawed and tentatively set about developing Ceefax. In actuality October 1986 was a fitting time for daytime television to find itself; it was slowly and perhaps grudgingly acknowledged that its captive audience not only included children, pensioners and young mothers and/or housewives, but also the long-term unemployed. There was still reckoned to be enough slack in the capitalist system for something approaching a “dole culture” to be sustainable (although this turned out to be an illusion, built on a combination of reckless City speculation and one-off episodes of large-scale Government expenditure; by 1987, under media pressure and with another General Election looming, the slow clampdown on all of this had begun).

The daytime programming on offer on BBC1 was not reckoned to be much beyond filler status. Indeed, the first Monday’s programming began with a grotesque “documentary” which should never have been allowed to happen – the title Who’s A Pretty Girl, Then? has already told you much more than you need to know – followed by a curious mixture of public obligation broadcasting (a programme for the disabled entitled One In Four, an unexciting-sounding televised ‘phone-in show called Open Air, which involved a very young Eamonn Holmes) and children’s television (Play School, Henry’s Cat, Phillip Schofield, an edition of The Clothes Show which I will likewise try to pretend never existed) mixed with fairly random stuff – a Gardeners’ World special from Pebble Mill, a rerun of The Onedin Line, a Rhoda spinoff called Valerie (which also featured a very young Jason Bateman), something called Star Memories (wouldn’t happen now) in which Nick Ross asked Su Pollard about her memories – plus the obligatory news and weather bulletins, and right in the middle of all this, at 1:25 pm, Britain’s first view of Neighbours.

In truth it should have been considered for a teatime rerun right there and then, rather than what was on at 5:35, namely Masterteam with Angela Rippon (“Will the MICKLEBARROW MORRIS MEN dance their way to gold tonight?”), but that didn’t happen until the beginning of 1988, by which time it had become clear that the soap was astonishingly popular. Paul Morley describes Neighbours as being “a virtual matrix of all the differences in white Australia” and really it was not very much; devised by Reg Watson, who in a previous ATV life had helped formulate the notion of Crossroads, nothing much happened in its episodes other than endless sunshine and barbecues as well as minor drama, the endless chronicling of love lives and the learning of lessons. One felt that this was what might be offered on the Village’s television channel, and what world, if any, lay beyond the partially anagrammatic Erinsborough?

Kylie Minogue came into the series some time after this – she had begun working on Neighbours in April 1986, but these episodes didn’t filter down to British television until much later – but her Charlene Mitchell instantly became one of the show’s most popular characters, essentially a portrayal of a girl who didn’t want to be portrayed as a “girl” (her eventual trade was as a welder). In 1987 she appeared with other cast members at a benefit concert for a local Australian rules football team and performed “The Loco-Motion.” Much to her surprise this went down a storm and the demand for a record rose. When released – as “Locomotion” – it topped the Australian charts for seven weeks.

The record had come about because the Stock, Aitken and Waterman team had sent one of their engineers – a Canadian named Mike Duffy – to Australia as part of a work exchange programme. While there, Duffy produced “Locomotion” in what he felt was the trademark SAW style, and telephoned Waterman to let him know how the record had done and play it to him. Waterman was amazed by the news but distinctly unimpressed by the record – “The Loco-Motion,” as performed by Little Eva, was one of his favourite pop songs – and when Minogue eventually came under SAW’s direct aegis, Waterman made sure that the song was re-recorded.

In 1988, no album sold more in Britain than Kylie – to date it has gone seven times platinum – and few 1988 number one albums give me greater headaches. As you may have guessed, I have had some considerable amount of time to think about how to approach this record, and at one stage I planned it to be the centre of an epic rant about false memory syndrome, the decline of the British music press and the pandering to a white, male, middle-aged, middle-class audience of consumers endemic in both. All that was needed was for the record to be great, greater than all those “classics” nobody wanted at the time but which everybody now professes to have “loved.”

The trouble is, yet again with the twenty-year-old Kylie, there really isn’t any “there” there. But a greater difficulty lies with the approach of SAW. I understand their late eighties function as a sort of walk-in Hits 4U facility, their renegade status as independent operators with comparatively limited facilities who could compete on equal terms with, or even outdo, the corporate majors – and this best asserted itself in their dozens of fine singles.

With Kylie, however, the problem is much the same as was the case with Rick Astley, namely that SAW weren’t very good at albums. Here we have an album utilising the standard pre-Beatles formula of half-front loaded hits, half-filler, containing four top two singles and three pop classics of which any musician would have a right to be proud – “I Should Be So Lucky,” “Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi” with both subject matter and enigmatic chord progression worthy of My Bloody Valentine, and “Turn It Into Love,” where for once Minogue sounds committed to something, emotional – but further delving reveals there still to be flaws; Hazell Dean, I recall, endured some terrible stick from Kylie fans about "stealing her song" and never had another Top 40 hit thereafter, and although SAW provided Dean with a very different arrangement of the same song, I wonder whether Dean’s hearty decisiveness isn’t actually more suited to the song’s emotional tenor. Certainly no outraged Mandy Smith fans expressed concern about Kylie doing her “Got To Be Certain” (which admittedly would have been unlikely, as Smith’s version was not commercially released until 2005).

But the rest of the non-single work here is simply dull, uneventful, so much so that their ennui envelops even the hits. The problem is not that Kylie is too poppy – conversely, it’s not poppy enough. There’s always the shade of SAW’s ingenuity poking through here and there – the unexpected harmonic diversions throughout “It’s No Secret” (the closest the record comes to Motown), the odd jelly plate of wobbling bass which grumbles throughout “I’ll Still Be Loving You” – but things like “I Miss You” aim for bland jazz-funk AoR which was certainly not SAW’s strong point, while “Look My Way” resembles an offcut from the first Madonna album five years too late.

More concerning is where, if anywhere, Kylie herself is in all of this. The record was quite clearly and squarely aimed at teenage girls and I don’t think that at this late stage of our civilisation further white, middle-aged, middle-class male critical output is needed. But so many of these songs – none written by the singer herself – set her up as a kind of pop doormat; she is forever being used by him, or only dreaming of him, or frantically and needlessly apologising to him (which is what her “Turn It Into Love” is really all about). And there is nothing in her voice, which is indistinct, feathery and sometimes inscrutable, to suggest what she plans to do about all of this mess. She certainly doesn’t sound like a singing actress, or even like the former child star that she was (The Sullivans, The Henderson Kids) struggling with the notion of growing up – it should be noted that in 1988 alone, Tanita Tikaram was a year younger than Kylie when she released Ancient Heart, and that Debbie Gibson was two years younger when she put out Only In My Dreams – albums whose songs were written by the artists themselves.

Really she doesn’t sound like much of anything, and her robotic retread of “The Loco-Motion” indicated that Waterman was right to be uneasy about revisiting the song, which in its 1962 original was composed, as Dave Marsh put it, of lots of little sounds which in themselves didn’t mean very much but when compressed together sounded like the biggest sound there had ever been – and in the late 1962 context of nuclear uncertainty and emerging girl power probably sounded like a (happy) explosion (the low sax harmonies resemble a bagpipe drone). But in 1988, 1962 was already a long time ago, and putting together jigsaw pieces of voice-tracking over a determinedly anonymising dancebeat was no substitute for what the original had suggested. Here it is just another harmless suburban nightclub floorfiller for the unfussed – a description which couldn’t be applied to the single which kept it off number one – and, as with the rest of this record, does nothing to suggest that this was somebody who would go on to have number one albums in four different decades…and counting. “How would the 12 labours of Hercules compare with the toil of Terry thrice weekly?” runs the description of the Wogan chat show as broadcast on Monday 27 October 1986. Or the toil of working out what can’t be got out of Kylie Minogue’s head? Even the alleged happy ending of "Love At First Sight" - not the last time she would record a song of this name - is disturbing in the context of what has preceded it. Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat" - most music critics' idea of 1988's best single - is really no more than a crudely-disguised paranoid Motown stomper which R Dean Taylor could have pulled off with great bubblegum aplomb, but its careful and gradual self-obliteration, of both self and truth, is perhaps more in keeping with Minogue's "Been hurt in love before/But I still come back for more" than is comfortable.