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.