Monday 29 June 2015

DEACON BLUE: When The World Knows Your Name

(#384: 15 April 1989, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Queen Of The New Year/Wages Day/Real Gone Kid/Love And Regret/Circus Lights/This Changing Light/Sad Loved Girl/Fergus Sings The Blues/The World Is Lit By Lightning/Silhouette/One Hundred Things/Your Constant Heart/Orphans

No doubt Ricky Ross considers himself as a sort of Alan Spence of pop, telling small stories about small victories and bigger metaphorical losses in a land where expressions like “wages day” are still used and whose people are still called things like Fergus. He is also righteously and rightfully angry about what his country and its people might turn into, as one listen to “One Hundred Things” will confirm, with its call to every “Jimmy” in the gutter to rise up and fight back.

The trouble is that the music has to rise to meet the spirit of the word, and too many times on this album it doesn’t, or buries the word beneath tasteful echoes of murmur. These songs sound expensive, and stifling; whether their subject matter is Maria McKee (“Real Gone Kid”) or the Spanish Civil War (“This Charming Light”), they get drowned out by restraint. The accelerando at the end of “Queen Of The New Year” leads to nothing, a step back which isn’t really erased by the extended, but fatally tasteful, feedback fade of “Your Constant Heart.”

Neither do I find Ross’ voice particularly endurable; most of the time he sounds like Paddy McAloon in severe need of Strepsils, and he has an uncomfortable growl, somewhere between Eden Kane and Barry McGuire, which, when used in extremis (“SHATTERED HOUSE!” in “Love And Regret,” the sudden upward ski-leap at the end of “One Hundred Things”), does not make him Samuel T Herring’s spiritual father.

What so much of this music does make Deacon Blue, unfortunately, is a direct precedent to the likes of Mumford and Sons; the majority of these songs play shamelessly to the stadium gallery. Attempts to rock out (“This Changing Light”), do Jam and Lewis (“The World Is Lit By Lightning”) or do the Blue Nile (“Sad Loved Girl” – truly, Hats and Paul Buchanan’s voice and feelings are everything this record and its singer aren’t, and let’s not even mention entry #386 – for now) end in the same compromise. I know Ross is enraged, and justified in being so, and have no idea about Michael Marra’s musical tastes, but the “sweet soul music” part of “Fergus Sings The Blues” – all about owning the “right” records, rather than the ones which touch you (the B-side of the “Real Gone Kid” single included covers of songs by Sam and Dave and Hüsker Dü; such “correct” choices that might provoke a scream) – could be said to represent the turning point where prosperity would be superseded by austerity.

Next: The first of our occasional short breaks, where we look at an album that isn’t on the Wikipedia list.

Sunday 28 June 2015

MADONNA: Like A Prayer

(#383: 1 April 1989, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Like A Prayer/Express Yourself/Love Song/Till Death Do Us Part/Promise To Try/Cherish/Dear Jessie/Oh Father/Keep It Together/Spanish Eyes/Act Of Contrition

Dear Miss Ciccone,

This is an open letter which I am virtually certain you will never read or even know about. I’m comfortable about that since this is the only way I can find to write about your album. I also take this risk because you (or your people) very briefly followed me on Twitter, and then all of a sudden you stopped following anybody. Maybe you’d seen that we hadn’t been that crazy about your previous records, or less crazy about them than we were thirty or so years ago, and decided against this “following” business. That’s fine; a lot of the time I wouldn’t even follow myself.

If I say that Like A Prayer was the astonishing leap forward which I had been awaiting, it would be no less true now than it was twenty-six years ago, and I hope that I can demonstrate why my reasons for liking it are subtly different from those of most critics. I loved this record when it came out; it was springtime, the patchouli oil scenting was spot on and I played the cassette – the very same one to which I have now listened again – endlessly on my Walkman as I journeyed around what was a much better London.

But I am keen not to fall into the misogynistic critical trap which claims that music by women can only be loved if accompanied by a degree of suffering. Personally I’d much rather listen to the funny, zestful and genuinely rebellious Billie Holiday of her thirties and forties days with Lester Young and Co. rather than the fifties waiting-for-death stuff. No, I’m not going to go there. But for me Like A Prayer works because it is what I regard as honest art, you singing about the people and things who mean or meant most to you,, and because, for a variety of reasons, its songs touch me very directly.

To illustrate what I mean, here are some words I wrote about the title song some eight years ago, when I knew substantially less than I do now. But I think they still stand:

Maybe the idolators understand the magic of pop better than anybody else, even, or especially, the idols they worship; since where the idols can get rattled, depressed, uncertain, pig out on drugs, turn up four hours late for a concert, become negligent with regard to their duties to the Inland Revenue, make crappy records, or die, the idolators will happily accept and embrace all of it; because they are dizzy with unquestionable and unquestioned love for those they choose to idolise, whatever their idols may do, and however painfully they might hurt them. If the new album’s substandard, it’s because we aren’t quite worthy of it, we’re not advanced or close enough to appreciate what drove the artist to extract ten-year-old rejects from their bottom drawers and pass it off as new music. As with football teams, or parents, we stand by them, regardless. Not for idolators the exhaustive, exhausting schemata of the open to and sceptical of everything “critics,” those who can securely classify the differing degrees of their love for different aspects of the same anatomy, the people who just know that the Verve lost something vital when they gained that auxiliary definite article, who are fully aware that Morrissey or Björk are career variables whom the rational would only approach every five years or so. But then, what truck has pop ever had with rationalism, especially when it comes to adding up the total bill for territories gained or souls lost? After all, we idolise idols precisely because of their superhuman status; they can do things we can’t, or won’t. They are never like us; even with the alleged democratisation of punk it quickly became clear that only John Lydon could ever hope to be John Lydon.
From her name upwards, Madonna knew that she had to be worshipped if she were to mean anything, and that another couple of years of “La Isla Bonita”s would lower her perspective to a curious over-shoulder gaze from newly disinterested consumers. So she had to come back with a blockbuster, something that Debbie or Gloria or even Belinda couldn’t have achieved, for all their individual and substantial merits. When the single of “Like A Prayer” came out it seemed to stop the rest of pop, momentarily but vitally; as with “Two Tribes,” it made everyone else in the Top 40 at the time seem like trespassers on newly privatised land.

The perspective of Madonna aspiring to God(dess)hood on “Like A Prayer” – she gives a barely perceptible whisper of “God” at the beginning of the track before the backwards guitars flood in and immediately slam, smashed, into a decisive wall of steel in order to suggest that all “rock” had been leading to this – has to be considered in balance with the rest of the Like A Prayer album, which focuses, at times very sorely, on the fallacies of the values of memory applied to lost loved ones (“Promise To Try”), fathers (“Oh Father”), errant husbands (“’Till Death Do Us Part”) and Prince (“Love Song”). Along with Erotica it is Madonna’s most palpably human record.

From the introduction onwards – and I believe that the guitarist here is indeed Prince, as it is at the album’s opposite end – it is also hard to imagine “Like A Prayer” without the immense precedent of Prince to inspire it; here is the dayglo Dadaism familiar from Sign ‘’ The Times, mixed with peculiar logic into that brew of unquenchable spiritual faith (“The Cross”), although the influence of the Pet Shop Boys (especially “It’s A Sin”) can hardly be discounted. “Like A Prayer” is perhaps the only pop single of the late eighties which could use a gospel choir and get away with it; Andrae Crouch and his Disciples are an indispensable part of the song’s architecture, rather than a tacky addendum. The use of the church organ is as unarguable and definitive as, say, Scott Walker’s “Manhattan” or Arcade Fire’s “Intervention.”

The song itself is all about worship, and Madonna seems intent on arguing passionately against the opening proposal of “Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone” since she goes on to demonstrate how impossible it is to live a life of any description on one’s own. As the video depicted the tableau of the black saint and the sinner lady, so does Madonna blend spiritual and carnal with a recklessness comparable with the Stanley Spencer of Cookham; thus the line “When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer” could have been sung by the Ronettes or the Shangri-Las a generation earlier, but then we get the more explicit “In the midnight hour, I can feel your power” – and the question here is: who is worshipping, and who is asking to be worshipped? Note that it’s the “you” who is calling Madonna’s name but this is enough to get her “down on my knees.” And later, there’s the ambiguous “You’re in control, just like a child/Now I’m dancing” – so again the idol here could be parent as well as, or instead of, lover or God; and really the three (the Holy Trinity!) all merge into one (“Just like a dream, you are not what you seem”).

The record really takes off immediately after the second verse, when the dual basses of Randy Jackson and Guy Pratt make their dramatic entrance underneath the church organ and the intensity of the “Life is a mystery” couplet is doubled; eventually it resolves into an epic call-and-response between Madonna and choir and absolution, or orgasm, is reached – but then recall the end of the video, after the burning crosses and the stigmata, when the black Christ figure is revealed merely to be a prisoner in a police cell; the curtains draw and reopen as Madonna and her cast take a bow (another clue to the future there). Illusion, a six-minute diversion – or can it be mistaken for transcendence?

Despite the hopped-up controversy of the video and Pepsi’s precipitous cold feet, all that Madonna really does with “Like A Prayer” is amplify the age-old conflict between spiritual and carnal in art and attempt to resolve it by sheer force of will and personality. Of course, throughout the record we are kept aware that this worship is “like a prayer” rather than a prayer in itself, rather than, say, “My Prayer” by the Platters – a song and group whose roots both go back deep into an unreachable church. Finally, “Like A Prayer” must take a seat next to “Running Up That Hill,” if only because, where “Like A Prayer” compares to God (passive), Ms Bush (and we’ll be hearing from her again before this year is out) is intent on making a deal with God (active). The song drops the mask, just as Madonna drops the blonde in the video, and reveals its singer as someone who feels, breathes, cries and shits just like the people who idolise her. Pop was obliged to take a breath, and count again.

Are you still reading, or have you long since metaphorically crumpled up the note and tossed it into the bin? Who’s this sad old British blogging jerk? Well, I can only act as my heart’s ventriloquist. And then the record briefly turns into another “Madonna album”; “Express Yourself” has all the zesty pop drive of old, but its zest is borne of experience, as Helen Reddy didn’t quite sing, and its message appears to be doublefold; don’t surrender to materialism (but then, isn’t that really what “Material Girl” was truly all about?) and don’t settle for second-best compromise, since it always pays to be fussy and go for the best. From direct experience I can only concur with this philosophy.

Prince again, on “Love Song” – was it just the cold of Minneapolis that kept you two from coming together so long? – and it’s a nervous, circumferential eyeing-up and sizing-up of gifts and desires; the song frequently folds back on its own tropes like a series of Russian dolls being wrapped up in reverse, as three-dimensional as any de Chirico painting or Gil Evans orchestration, and again and again in the background, a motif from the aforementioned John Lydon; “this is not a love song.” But, as the song’s ending makes clear, it doesn’t end there – “This is not a love song that I want to sing,” and there are other odd and foreboding reference points in the song (“God strike me dead if I did you wrong,” “Mean what you say or baby I am gone,” “Don’t try to tell me what your enemies taught you”) which suggest that you might actually be singing about the subject of the next song.

“Till Death Do Us Part.” As I said (and so did Chrissie Hynde), don’t get me wrong. It gives me no joy to derive pleasure from music borne of suffering. I would rather you hadn’t made this album and not have had all these things that you describe within it happen to you. Listening to it now, I am afraid that it is clear why an awful lot of people still have serious problems about the man who is this song’s subject, despite what he has done since (does it all count as penance? Not being a doxologist, I’ve no idea). The music is nightmare power pop which stops once to allow the sound of breaking glass and then it starts up again towards a morbid fade. The things I could tell you about my parents, but this is neither the place nor the time; instead I wonder whether this is the other end of the benign “Anything For You” emotional seesaw.

It’s possible that at this moment “Promise To Try” cuts me deepest, and I hear how close you are to tears while singing it, and I wish there were an easy answer to this but there isn’t.  Looking back, it’s remarkable how close one repeatedly gets to what Gil Scott-Heron called selective amnesia; remembering the good times and cancelling out all the rest. And you have to think, from a distance in time which is now equal to that between when this album came out and now, that maybe memory is indeed an elaborate façade which won’t bring your loved one back. In my case it’s not quite fourteen years, and it wasn’t my mother, who I’m happy to say is still with us, and, well...if you want to know how I tried to live up to my own promise, the history’s easily found here. You take what is good in someone and do your best to make sure it survives and thrives in you, the things you do and the way you do things, which in my case includes writing. Then you either kiss the past goodbye, as you sing, or look at it in a different way which is relevant to the way you live now. I’ve never been in any doubt that that is what she would have wanted.

Then you go back to the sixties – this whole album really is far more late eighties psychedelia than even your Spacemen 3 or Dukes of Stratosfear – for pop; “Cherish,” which references everything, especially Romeo And Juliet and The Association, in a cheery and uplifting manner, and the re-photographed 1967 of “Dear Jessie,” which I understand relates to the daughter of your writing and producing colleague for much of this record, Patrick Leonard – yes, its “pink elephants and lemonade” make me think immediately of Prince, but its tricks with tempo and trumpets are sufficiently un-Prince-like to count as “authentic” (yes I know, it’s just one of those words, but I do try to make them mean something again).

As well you know, neither of these songs fully prepare the listener for “O Father.” I’ve read about the problems you had with your father and have no idea whether what has been written about them bears any relation to what or how they actually were. Like “Promise To Try,” this is a song which struggles to escape from a parent, but here the escape is sadly triumphant (“You can’t make me cry; you once had the power”) and is echoed against an immense, blue Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy soundscape (the golden sunset which attracts me towards probably far too many albums). And yet you find it in you to offer some empathy: “You didn’t mean to be cruel/Somebody hurt you too.” Perhaps, but it doesn’t make the existence of it any less painful. My father’s been gone almost thirty-four years now and he taught me most of what I still know but...but...the other’s no help to you but I can’t talk about it now. Not here, not yet.

Getting towards the end now, and it was nice to see somebody still using the DC Go-Go beat in 1989: “Keep It Together” is a warning about staying close to your family, particularly your brothers and sisters (if, unlike me, you’re lucky to have any), where you are, as you sing, loved for what you are and not what they want to see, unlike people who try to get close to you and are bitterly, and angrily, disappointed because they’re not with “Madonna.” That’s my uneducated guess, anyway. But you’re right; whatever one’s family situation, one has to try to keep it going and keep it strong. I mean – this is what journalists call “full disclosure” – I myself am a widower, was widowed very young and started writing in public because I could see no other way of getting myself up off the floor (Bill Fay, “Strange Stairway”). By doing that I managed to kiss the past goodbye, or at least to come to terms with it, and I created a new life for myself. But I could never have done it without the help of family – and that includes the woman I happily married some years ago - and friends close enough to be considered family. There not to see through each other, as the proverb goes, but to see each other through.

As for “Spanish Eyes,” I know this was about a friend of yours who died of a big disease with a little name – the “AIDS IS NO PARTY!” summary, white print on black background, remains prominent in the album design – and there is another meticulous, huge musical backdrop which puts me in mind of what George Michael would go on to do, and for not dissimilar reasons, in the nineties. If I knew no better I’d say that here you sounded like a mind at the end of its tether.

But there’s always a way out, and you have to come to terms with yourself on this most Catholic of pop albums. In “Till Death Do Us Part” you sing “You’re not in love with someone else/You don’t even love yourself” – and how the hell can somebody expect to be loved if they don’t love themselves, or at least have nodding respect towards themselves? Different people respond to the self-awareness issue in different ways; me, I tend to be quiet, reserved and rather diffident in a social setting. This is connected with the qualities I don’t have – especially easy, natural, non-arrogant self-confidence – which could have helped me to reach somewhat “higher” in life than I have done, i.e. I would be a published and respected author rather than the writer of blogs which no one reads because all that musical theory gives them a headache. A lot of that was, shall I say, beaten out of me at an age when I might still have been able to do something about it. So I have rely on the strength of my written word to connect with people.

Not ideal, but then you turn this album upon its head, spin the “Prayer” semi-backwards, say your atonement and then wait, and falter, then gather slowly mounting and dreadful confidence. “I have a reservation.” You know something’s about to boil over.

All of a sudden you scream “WHADDYA MEAN IT’S NOT IN THE COMPUTER?” and it knocked me off my chair back in 1989 and still makes me jump now. But I think I know the moral; just making the right noises for repentance isn’t going to automatically get you into heaven, as though you were booking a hotel suite. A good afterlife isn’t an entitlement; it’s something for which you have to prove your eligibility by the way you live your life.

But this is amateurish layman droning and nobody, least of all you, needs yet more pseudo-psychology. This is just to say that I thought your album connected with me in ways that others from this or other periods don’t. I haven’t put any links into this letter either as an abject gimmick to persuade you to read the rest of this blog; people who know what I’m talking about also know where to find it. Anyway, I’ll shut up and get on with the rest of the story now. It was good to talk, even if the conversation was almost certainly one-sided. To end - and with the subject of "Spanish Eyes" specifically in mind - I should tell you how proud I am of what happened in your country two days ago, with the great step forward taken on behalf of a nation which even the day before resembled a civilisation at the end of its tether. One step at a time, admittedly, but even that is better than finding any excuse to take no steps.

M A Carlin

Thursday 25 June 2015

Gloria ESTEFAN and MIAMI SOUND MACHINE: Anything For You

(#382: 25 March 1989, 1 week)

Track listing: Betcha Say That/Let It Loose/Can’t Stay Away From You/Give It Up/Surrender/Rhythm Is Gonna Get You/Love Toy/I Want You So Bad/1-2-3/Anything For You

Why is Anything For You vastly more entertaining and inventive than A New Flame? I could set up some blanket trope about Americans (or, in this case, Cuban expatriates) doing it better than the British, or women doing it better than men – but whether Miami Sound Machine or Gloria plus MSM or Gloria alone, this is essentially a husband-and-wife double act.

It is, crucially, far lighter in tone and far more fun to listen to than Simply Red; you do not feel that you are doing penance or being sternly lectured. Its basic subject matter is one of the oldest and most durable in pop, that of the girl who secretly knows this boy’s no good but is nevertheless drawn to him and even loves him. The opening “Betcha Say That” sets the tone; beginning with a huge backwards panoramic thwack like a Fairlight soldering iron, it proceeds jauntily with regular upward curves (or raised eyebrows) of synthesiser which rub together, not unpleasantly, with a pop that is immersed in its past – “Let It Loose” and “Love Toy” are just two other examples of sixties girl group methodology let loose in a spaceship – but which leaps to grab the future. Hence all of these three songs, together with “Give It Up,” feature intervals where stuttering electronics shift the song out of focus and tonality before normal service is restored.

Most importantly, Gloria Estefan is one of pop’s great actresses. Her performance on “Betcha Say That” moves with absolutely natural ease from cynical via cautious to committed (though her “B-b-b-baby” indicates that she still has merry doubts), and the music – including fellow Miami singer Betty Wright on backing vocals, here and on “Surrender” – is behind and with her all the way. On “Let It Loose” – this album’s title track when it was released as such in June 1987 (it was subsequently repackaged and retitled for Europe and other territories) – one is pleased to hear Clarence Clemons, almost absent from Tunnel Of Love, having some fun with his solo.

The album’s three ballads are among her greatest achievements. “Can’t Stay Away From You” was the one which perspicacious critics compared to Karen Carpenter, although while Gloria’s voice is clearly capable of expressing the same kind of stoical hurt, she is unafraid to raise her voice in ways that Karen never really tried (or was allowed or asked to try). Hence her desperate devotion is more palpable, but she is equally resolute not to break down: “But if all I’ve been is fun/Then baby let me go,” is one of the record’s most striking and hurting couplets, and she sings it as though a close relative has unexpectedly died. But she knows this routine too is, when one comes down to it, “fun”; she twice admits “And though I’ve heard it all before,” indicating that this probably won’t be a goodbye. The song is an exercise in excising life from the jaws of slow death.

During “Surrender” the Cuban influences start to nudge their way into the music explicitly (Paquita Hechevarra’s exuberant piano solo is the most obvious signifier of this) and throughout side two they slowly become more pronounced. “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” and “1-2-3” are so sheerly catchy, danceable and good-humoured that they remind me of very early Madonna, before people started telling her that she was “great.” Equally, “Love Toy,” with her husband Emilio, amongst others, eagerly responding in the background (“No batteries required!,” “Wind me up and I start to move!”), is rather like Ze Records doing a kindly send-up of the Captain and Tennille.

But “I Want You So Bad” is the one here. Free of percussion or discernible tempo, this is so mighty a performance I’m surprised Melody Maker didn’t immediately jump on it, with all their talk of “oceanic bliss” and suchlike. Here the singer is as unmoored from the music behind and around her as Alex Ayuli is on side two of AR Kane’s 69; she sings in front of an immensely pacific seascape of synthesisers and bass guitar, as lost-waiting-to-be-found as the Elizabeth Frazer of side one of the Cocteaus’ Treasure; she feels him but is still unsure (“I’m so scared I’m afraid/I can’t find a way/To say I love you”). At one point the music halts altogether, as if to catch its own breath, before restarting; at another point shortly thereafter the bass arches once, like a reluctant whale, and later still Estefan freezes on the “swear” of the line “I swear that’s no lie.” Anybody who venerates the OMD of “Stanlow” and “Sealand” will find common ground in these unexpected surroundings.

The album ends with its title track, the third of its ballads, and the scenario is the same as “Can’t Stay Away From You”; this time, she initially seems able and willing to let him go, even though it’s inwardly tearing her to pieces, but as the song progresses and gently gathers pace and texture, her voice gradually rises to meet the elements; by the time she gets to her second “And though inside I feel like dying/You know you’ll never see me crying” you can’t believe her. Brass, guitar and percussion shuffle in to take control of the song and also to offer optimism to balance the singer’s subtle defiance; the moral appears to be that these two people will orbit each other forever and never quite lose (sight of) each other. Anything For You is an absolutely cracking pop record. Who, apart from the Pet Shop Boys and maybe Chuck Eddy, would have admitted so much at the time?

Next: Everyone must stand alone. You sure about that?

Tuesday 23 June 2015


(#381: 25 February 1989, 4 weeks; 29 April 1989, 1 week; 22 July 1989, 2 weeks)

Track listing: It’s Only Love/A New Flame/You’ve Got It/To Be With You/More/Turn It Up/Love Lays Its Tune/She’ll Have To Go/If You Don’t Know Me By Now/Enough

If Mick Hucknall fulfilled the same function that Rod Stewart had done for album-buyers in the seventies, then he seems to have progressed straight to the Rod Stewart of Foolish Behaviour or thereabouts ("Holding Back The Years" was his "Mandolin Wind"); most of Simply Red’s third album could serve as alternative themes for 1986’s hilarious Robert Redford/Debra Winger knockabout comedy Legal Eagles. Listening to this, and looking at what follows it in 1989, makes me wonder anew if this is really how two-and-a-sixth million British people preferred to be entertained; boring, expensive music promising boring, expensive lifestyles to boring, expensive people.

I mean, Hucknall tries – at least, he tries my patience – by God, how he tries (at times). But just as the cover versions prove that he is neither Barry White nor Teddy Pendergrass, there is so much banal lurve stuff here, like a Farmfoods Luther Vandross, and the Montserrat setting for its recording, with tasteful guitars plucked just so and just the right amount of echo to give the impression that one is in the driveway of the Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados, suggests that Hucknall has lost sight of what prompted Simply Red in the first place; the picture of him on the inner sleeve, grinning and cocking his head in what looks like a pyjama jacket, resembles no one so much as professional seventies pop troll Judge Dread (the portraits of the rest of the group are direly dated in both clothing and hairstyles, although guitarist Heitor T P looks uncannily like Bobby Gillespie).

He doesn’t, it has to be said, entirely lose sight of what really inspired that “Red”; after the tepid love bath of side one, it is something of a shock to hear him launch into a fulsome anti-Tory blast on “Turn It Up”; “…Ruling the country/Are unfaithful husbands/Who spank little boys/Gagged and bound” is startling imagery even by 1989 standards (again one has to ask: did Hucknall know what the rest of us pretended not to know?). But its streamlined “soul” surface makes one wonder how many of the shy and not-so-shy Tories who bought this record ever bothered to listen to what he was saying. It’s the same story with “She’ll Have To Go” which is a better anti-Thatcher tract than “Tramp The Dirt Down” – but again, unless you read the lyric sheet and pressed an ear to the speaker, how would you know that was what it was?

The harmonically agreeable lovers rock of “More” was the only thing here I wanted to hear more than once, but even this serves as a reminder of how Sade did, and do, this sort of thing so much better. And yet for most of its year A New Flame was the year’s biggest-selling album, only being overtaken towards the end of 1989 by entry #387. I don’t quite know whether Hucknall qualifies as Britain’s Michael Bolton – for a start, he only ever seems to have had one haircut, rather than two – but it is uncannily prescient of the allegedly beloved New Labour; don’t say what you really think or stand for, just make the right faces and make the right noises to win over the waverers. Wavering towards, or away from, what? On a Mancunian level, A New Flame - the first, it should be said, of five number one albums by Simply Red - possesses enough inbuilt torpor to make me wonder whether the group shouldn't have been named Mick Hucknall's High Flying Birds.

Monday 22 June 2015


(#380: 18 February 1989, 1 week)

Track listing: She Drives Me Crazy/Good Thing/I’m Not The Man I Used To Be/I’m Not Satisfied/Tell Me What/Don’t Look Back/It’s OK (It’s Alright)/Don’t Let It Get You Down/As Hard As It Is/Ever Fallen In Love

The album title came from Claude Lévi-Strauss’ 1964 study, which is kind of a New Pop thing to do, except I’m not quite sure how these ten songs work as conceptual tools to enable the formation of abstract notions and combining them into propositions. Perhaps it’s as simple as representing the early stirrings of retro-nuevo pop; music clearly aware of its past yet unafraid of, at least, the recent present. Interestingly the trio originally wanted Prince to produce some of the album, but their American record company instead offered them Prince associate David Z, with whom they completed the record at Paisley Park.

Unlike some other recent TPL entries, this has held up pretty well. At thirty-five minutes and fifty seconds, it doesn’t outstay its welcome – but one has to remember that the Buzzcocks cover dates back to 1986 (for use in the movie Something Wild) and three other songs, including “Good Thing,” were featured (as were the band themselves) in 1987’s Baltimore knockabout Tin Men.

No matter. I confess that for much of the time I have no idea what Roland Gift is going on about on this record, except that it’s all about love; he’s probably as unlucky as Bernard Sumner, but sounds both angrier and lighter of spirit and in truth I really don’t want to find out what he’s saying, for this is pretty nifty and catchy pop (the debut album’s sleeve-worn politics are gone, but that works to the group’s advantage). Andy Cox’s guitar dallies with bitonality on both “She Drives Me Crazy” and “I’m Not The Man I Used To Be.” The closest the record comes to The (English) Beat is the subtle ska underbelly of “Good Thing” and the exultant “It’s OK (It’s Alright).” They know their Motown and Stax but find an unhackneyed use of the “Funky Drummer” loop (on “I’m Not The Man I Used To Be”) and even go in for some Man Parrish electro on “Don’t Let It Get You Down”; when Graeme Hamilton enters, we are abrputly back in 2 Men, A Drum Machine And A Trumpet territory.

Hurting gospel is also not beyond the group; Gift’s seldom-used lower register in “As Hard As It Is” puts me in mind of those other Baltimoreans, Future Islands (two musicians dutifully backing up an idiosyncratic singer). Overall, the record gives a good early portrait of the kind of approach that the then eleven-year-old Mark Ronson would eventually make his own. Perhaps knowing their limitations, Fine Young Cannibals more or less didn’t do anything after this record, but then they didn’t really need to. I note that one of the backing singers on “Good Thing” is Simon Fowler, presumably the future Ocean Colour Scenester.

Sunday 21 June 2015

NEW ORDER: Technique

(#379: 11 February 1989, 1 week)

Track listing: Fine Time/All The Way/Love Less/Round & Round/Guilty Partner/Run/Mr Disco/Vanishing Point/Dream Attack

“It takes years to find the nerve to be apart from what you’ve done”
(“All The Way”)

“Fine Time” must be one of the reddest of herrings when it comes to album openers. The mix is not so much different from that of the single, but has been reordered to make even less (but more giddy) sense. It inverts the concept of A Pop Song so thoroughly that it throws the whole concept into questions of merriment. It captures the dis-order of Acid House, Ibiza and all that in a way that even indie Easter statues could absorb. Twice the beat disappears  - firstly, when a vocal sample and the familiar lighthouse of Peter Hook’s bass lead one to think “ah, THIS is New Order” before being completely eradicated by the renewed off-centre beat; Stephen Morris plays across the Balearic undertow with martial triplets in a way so natural it unexpectedly reminds me of Slade. But the beat is never on the beat; your head swirls as it might have done under the Ibiza influence. Huge, foreboding boulders of metallic noise crash in our pathway, only to be succeeded by delicate celeste-type keyboard figures (with occasional sheep bleats). In and around all of this, Bernard Sumner’s voice dips and dives, sometimes fearfully (“You’re much too YOUNG!”), at other times hilariously Seductive Barry. Listening to it, you could think that, as the decade drew to a close, New Order had succeeded in exorcising its own ghosts.

Perhaps it was that false dawn that caused so many over-hasty critics to run in and proclaim Technique a joyful post-rave/indie communion. Actually, if any Factory act had learned these lessons well, it was Happy Mondays; 1988’s Bummed, their best album, found them giving the past the E-finger. The full-frontal on the inner sleeve is maybe more “coarse” than Peter Saville’s solemn and possibly mourning statue, but instead of falling into the trap of wanting to sound like Balearic beat, they got Martin Hannett to re-sculpt their sound. Hence “Mad Cyril,” “Wrote For Luck,” “Lazyitis” and all the rest of them sound like the Cocteau Twins playing a residency in Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights; not really of any world to do with known “rock” but, perversely yet logically, entirely of themselves. They sound happy.

But the rest of Technique is not remotely like that. The key struggle which New Order had faced throughout the eighties was that between becoming an electronic dance band or staying a rock group (it is fair to assume that three of the band were on one side and the fourth on the other). And so their albums of the eighties mainly see them trying different things out with uneven levels of success, but that is also why the singles compilation Substance is actually their best album, since it assumes that the compromise has already been accomplished.

On Technique, however, the songs balance out fairly evenly; four are essentially dance music and four basically rock. There is an airier than normal feel to the rock songs, admittedly, and the Spanish guitar figures on “Guilty Partner” point to a beneficial Balearic influence; but only “Dream Attack” attempts an uneasy truce between the two.

Nonetheless, after “Fine Time,” the rest of the album is relentlessly downbeat and probably has much more in common with something like the Cure’s Disintegration (“Lovesong” could have fitted on here without any jarring discontinuity). Much of this is to do with the lyrics, all of which were written by Sumner, who at the time was going through a painful divorce, and all of which appear to refer to same. There is at times a bitter tiredness to Sumner’s voice which hadn’t been there before; note the complete exhaustion with which he delivers the payoff to “Love Less”: “I spent a lifetime working on you/And you won’t even talk to me.” On “Guilty Partner” he half-sneers the choruses (“You’re-NNNNOT-being-CRRRUEL to me!”), somewhat out of tempo; as with “Round & Round,” the words are spiteful and accusatory, but here it perpetually comes back, via different angles, to “come back to me,” so comprehensively you almost miss Gillian Gilbert’s keyboards coming in and realise that it’s turned into the 12-inch version of “She’s Lost Control.” Likewise, “Run” is probably the album’s best “rock” song with its careful and patient build, but again once the clouds of synthesiser materialise, we find ourselves in the snowscape of “Atmosphere.”

On “Mr Disco,” which tackles house music more readily with its blasts of Fairlight shriek, Sumner wonders whether music actually is an answer to anything, or merely an obstacle to life; he’s in the club, on holiday, but he’s lost – “I can’t find you” Sumner repeatedly cries, before reaching a payoff worthy of Martin Fry: “Ibiza, Majorca, and Benidorm too/I’ve seen all these places but I’ve never found you.”

Whereas “Vanishing Point” is Technique at its most forlorn; a keyboard melody of sadness worthy of the Pet Shop Boys appears in the foreground, and synthesisers swell up in a strangely familiar fashion as Sumner pleads “Grow up children, don’t you suffer/At the hands of one another” before Hook’s emphatic bass enters and we reach a heartbreaking and poignant end-of-everything chorus (“I’ve been through the Point of No Return”). There is some slight hope, but Sumner mumbles something about Whistle Down The Wind at the end (“By the look on His face/He never gave in”) and the song stutters to a halt, petrified on its own crucifix. “Dream Attack” temporarily strengthens that newfound faith in music (“Nothing in this world/Can touch the music that I heard/When I woke up this morning” – this inversion of a blues trope doesn’t mean he’s not singing the blues) but again the singer falls back into pleading and mourning (“I can’t live without your love,” unconsciously paraphrasing Petula Clark). In the end, there is no resolution, but the weariest of sighs from Sumner as he sings “And for you I would do what I can/But I can’t change the way that I am.” With that, the voice excuses itself from the record, which ends in a long instrumental run-out which seems to re-ask the question “What am I supposed to do?” musically.

You may have guessed that some of this will find an echo in entry #720. But what if there are other ghosts at work or in mind here? What if all the “come back to me”s and the “I used to feel what language cannot say” which stands out in “Mr Disco” refer to somebody else who is missing?

The reason I ask these rhetorical questions is because here we are, in 1989, and New Order actually don’t seem that different from, or markedly less troubled than, what they were in 1980. If side two of Closer presented its audiences with emotions and demons they didn’t want to touch or even acknowledge, then much of Technique is, in its own way, as harrowing to listen to. It’s nearing the end of the decade and the eighties are slowly breaking up, as indeed are, I suspect, New Order themselves. And the ghost which has pervaded all of this decade has not faded away into the background or been forgotten. I once thought Joy Division/New Order my favourite group but there is an underlying pain present in even the most superficially cheery of their work that is hard to dodge or ignore. Perhaps “favourite groups” are things you have when you’re younger and less “wise.” At one key point in “Vanishing Point” the beat stops and all you hear are the plaintive Kraftwerkian melody and a ticking electronic cymbal; you think “how vast is the emotional depth of this apparent emptiness?” and realise that this air is still thick with the aura afforded to ghosts.

Saturday 20 June 2015

Roy ORBISON: The Legendary Roy Orbison: The Greatest Hits

 (#378: 21 January 1989, 3 weeks)

Track listing: Oh Pretty Woman/Only The Lonely/Love Hurts/Lana/My Prayer/Goodnight/Falling/Blue Angel/All I Have To Do Is Dream/In Dreams/Crying/Blue Bayou/Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)/The Great Pretender/Running Scared/Borne On The Wind/Mean Woman Blues/Pretty Paper/The Crowd/It’s Over

It is now just over three years since I wrote about an album very similar to this one. Although TV-promoted (it was on Telstar, in association with CBS, rather than Arcade, with the "20 Original Hits" banner still present), the sequencing is different and five tracks appear that weren’t there before. Of these, the only important one is “Love Hurts” where Orbison numbly itemises over Morse code staccato brass the ways in which a fundamental misunderstanding of “love” can destroy even the strongest Texan oil rigger; “Mean Woman Blues,” once a double A-side with “Blue Bayou,” proves that uptempo ooby-dooby rocking was for him simply out of character, and I do not believe that the listless Platters and Everlys covers add anything to the underlying dream of a story.

Otherwise, like its Arcadian predecessor, it’s Monument all the way; anybody looking for the MGM sides (“Too Soon To Know,” “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home,” “Southbound Jericho Parkway”) will need to look expensively elsewhere. The major difference between early 1976 and early 1989 was, of course, that Orbison had died (although this album was packaged and already selling before his death). Some say that the sudden pressures inspired by his equally sudden comeback were to blame, although he had had serious heart trouble going back to 1977 and, with endless smoking and touring, did himself no favours.

There did emerge a “new” posthumous album, Mystery Girl, which in Britain was held at number two by entry #380 and whose critical praise was, I think, mainly driven by sentimentality. It was merely among the early attempts by smugly moneyed babyboomer rock types to treat old musicians like their caddy. Hence “You Got It” is an ELO record, “She’s A Mystery To Me” is a U2 song, and all I hear are gestures to the past without commitment to back them up. Orbison sings these songs as though he already knows that he is a memory. For somebody whose dreamed world was perhaps more thoroughly self-contained than anybody else in pop – more so even than Elvis or Jerry Lee, just to stick to old Sun labelmates  - things like “In The Real World” and “(AII I Can Do Is) Dream You” are empty pastiches. Worse, Elvis Costello’s “The Comedians” seems to revel in its wish to laugh at Orbison, improbably stuck up there all night on the Ferris wheel; it sounds like Weird Al Yankovic sending up the Big O.

The hits themselves don’t sound any less great than they did in 1976, but their impact in this setting is less marked. We are almost done with the eighties, and yet (once again I reiterate: through no fault of his own) here we have a Cliff Richard compilation followed by a Roy Orbison compilation. At the same time, Gene Pitney is heading for the only British number one single of his career. The eyes are slowly being swivelled back to the past – and unlike 1976, there would seem to be no return this time around. In memory of Harry Barry, who died in his sleep of an aneurysm in February 2013, much too young; I don’t know whether he ever got to read my original piece on Orbison, but I tried my best to be as fresh and strong as Orbison’s great records were, and are.