Thursday 30 July 2015

Paul McCARTNEY: Flowers In The Dirt

(#389: 24 June 1989, 1 week)

Track listing: My Brave Face/Rough Ride/You Want Her Too/Distractions/We Got Married/Put It There/Où Est Le Soleil?/Figure Of Eight/This One/Don’t Be Careless Love/That Day Is Done/How Many People/Motor Of Love

(Author’s Note: “Où Est Le Soleil?” appeared on the CD and cassette editions only.)

I cannot really remember when the phrase first came into critical discourse, but it was around this time, as pop and rock slowly ossified into “heritage,” something that had already happened, that the expression “stunning return to form” started to be waved around like an indiscriminate stick at any record by old-timers which wasn’t a disaster, or for marketing and circulation results couldn’t be seen to be a disaster.

1989 was certainly a watermark year for Stunning Returns to Form. In the case of records like Neil Young’s Freedom, Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy and Lou Reed’s New York it was certainly valid; these were all by some distance the strongest and most focused records these musicians had produced in years. But it was also used for things like Steel Wheels, from which I only ever wanted to keep one song, although given time and a financial incentive, I think I could argue in favour of Tin Machine (their first album, anyway).

Where does Flowers In The Dirt stand amidst all these stunning returns? It perhaps should be said that, compared with the disaster that was Give My Regards To Broad Street and, to a lesser extent, Press To Play (half-decent songs overdubbed, mixed and remixed to the point of stuffy, headachy inertia), any improvement could be seen as a Stunning Return. I think McCartney knew that he was heading towards an aesthetic and commercial brick wall and needed to pull some new tricks.

Much has been said about the mutual benefit derived from McCartney collaborating with Elvis Costello – like Lennon, a thoroughly amiable but decidedly independent-minded Scouser of Irish descent with no fear of answering back, and in the late eighties, few can deny that musically McCartney was in dire need of someone who’d answer him back. However, it has to be said that only four of the thirteen songs on Flowers In The Dirt represent McCartney/MacManus collaborations, so he was obviously keen on continuing to hedge his bets.

A further four songs were done with the Trevor Horn/Steve Lipson production machine, and McCartney in ZTT-land works rather better than you’d imagine; no doubt for Horn and Lipson this represented some light relief following the darkening intensity of Street Fighting Years. “Rough Ride,” “Figure Of Eight” and “How Many People” (the latter dedicated to the then recently assassinated rainforest campaigner Chico Mendes) all benefit from extra light and sparkle, while “Où Est Le Soleil?” works the best; an unexpected Art of Noise-style exploration of electronica with a minimalist French lyric which also points towards McCartney’s later “Fireman” experiments in this field.

But the Costello collaborations cut the deepest. “My Brave Face” ambles along like a familiar old Beatles song, but the lyric is a deceptively unrelenting self-examination of post-breakup loneliness and solitude, with the singer clearing away the uneaten TV dinner he’d prepared for her, or throwing away dirty dishes. “You Want Her Too,” which McCartney does as a duet with a rabidly snarling Costello, is a far less sentimental and considerably more ambivalent take on “The Girl Is Mine” (featuring a bizarre big band fadeout).

The other two Costello songs are among the darkest McCartney has ever recorded; “Don’t Be Careless Love” finds him in bed, at night, sleepless or dreaming the worst possible nightmares about his lover; it is the other side of the coin of obsession that was “I Want You.” Meanwhile, “That Day Is Done,” from which the expression “flowers in the dirt” is derived and in which it is slowly revealed that the visiting lover is in fact attending the singer’s own funeral, could act as a reverse scenario to Spike’s “Tramp The Dirt Down” (minus the politics but with a brass band). And hence the double-edge of the cover design; it looks attractive from a distance, but come closer and its essential morbidity is revealed. As with Lennon, Costello seemed able to access emotions in McCartney that would otherwise have remained under the darkest of covers.

The rest, largely self-produced, is hit and miss. “Distractions” is a lovely sequence of chords which perhaps meanders a little too much and owes much of its impact to Clare Fischer’s orchestration. “Put It There” is a very touching message of friendship to his son. “We Got Married” is a straightforward yarn about, well, getting married and working on the marriage (“It's not just a loving machine,” McCartney sings, “It doesn't work out/If you don't work at it” – true enough words, and Linda is usually in audible attendance throughout the album) but is Dave Gilmour’s long guitar solo really needed? Likewise, “This Boy” again conjures up the old Beatles but is slightly detoured by a closing veer into stadium rock. One imagines that a disciplined editor – a Lennon or a George Martin (who nevertheless contributed a string chart for “Put It There”) – would have halved these songs’ lengths and cut out the padding.

The closing “Motor Of Love” also goes on for a little longer than it really ought but is not a bad soul-gospel ballad in which McCartney shows us that he not only knows his Prince (“Adore” in particular) but also that he is still channelling Brian Wilson somewhere in the ether. All in all I’d call Flowers In The Dirt a reasonable return to form, and one, moreover, I’d be pleased to listen to again. Away from the jazz, McCartney proved that he could clearly still do anything at all.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

QUEEN: The Miracle

(#388: 3 June 1989, 1 week)

Track listing: Party/Khashoggi’s Ship/The Miracle/I Want It All/The Invisible Man/Breakthru’/Rain Must Fall/Scandal/My Baby Does Me/Was It All Worth It

(Author’s Note: The CD edition included three additional tracks: “Hang On In There,” the Brian May instrumental “Chinese Torture” and the 12-inch mix of “The Invisible Man.” I used the cassette.)

I don’t remember seeing this album being mentioned, let alone reviewed, in Melody Maker or NME, although it got four stars in Q magazine, which by 1989 was where all the readers had gone. One might have thought there was really nothing to say about it, and moreover that saying anything about it wouldn’t make any difference. Rich middle-aged men who’d done it all and had nothing better to do with their time, or the disguised thoughts of one man who knew that he was running out of time?

For Queen fans, The Miracle was a considerable improvement on A Kind Of Magic, although such judgements are always relative; the group seem far more comfortable when the “rock” button gets pushed, even briefly – the epileptic interlude in the title song, the final song’s summoning up of past triumphs – than when they are trying to be Culture Club covering “Young Hearts Run Free” (“Rain Must Fall”) or Prince doing “Mony, Mony” (“Party”) or George Michael (“My Baby Does Me”) or Bomb The Bass (“The Invisible Man”). One would have thought that by 1989 they had done enough to body-swerve the need to sound hip. Nor am I convinced that they needed to do songs about hanging out on the yacht of a dodgy arms dealer or moaning about the tabloid press.

From the cover in, they take great pains to remind the listener that they are a group, not just Freddie and backing band, and it is rather sweet to hear the band namechecks on “The Invisible Man” although, like the Beatles’ “The End,” such devices tend to indicate an imminent finality. The video for “Breakthru’” saw them performing the song on top of a train, speeding through the Cambridgeshire countryside; apparently making the video was a lot of fun for everyone involved, and it may represent the last public instance of all four having an uncomplicatedly good time.

But I note that in that song Freddie sings “Breakthru’ these barriers of pain,” and although he gives a fine, lusty (if somewhat hoarse) vocal performance throughout the album, there are nevertheless clues here and there which suggest that everything is not great; the exhausted downward stress he gives to the last three syllables of the line “Everybody was hung-over” in “Party,” the defiant “Who said that my party was over?/Huh, huh, I’m in pretty good shape” in “Khashoggi’s Ship,” “Incredible how you can see right through me” in “The Invisible Man,” and, most poignantly, “I’m a man with a one-track mind/So much to do in one lifetime” in “I Want It All.”

“I Want It All” was one of the group's last great rockers, although with the benefit of hindsight can be viewed less as a Thatcherite money-grabbing anthem and more as the desperate wish of someone who might only have a limited amount of time to experience it all (hence “I want it now”). The title track is the most poignant because of what Freddie doesn’t sing, but what he might have been thinking as he wanders amazed at this wonderful world and wanting it not to be destroyed; yes, Hendrix, Sunday morning cups of tea and Sahara rain are, or were, all miraculous but wouldn’t it be a greater miracle if there were…just…a cure?

The album essentially ends with “Was It All Worth It,” a last-ditch attempt to recapture the old Sheer Heart Attack power – although not their last album, The Miracle certainly plays as though it were some kind of final statement – which features Freddie looking back on this rock ‘n’ roll life that he has led. “Am I a happy man,” he asks rhetorically, “or is this sinking sand?” – and, he implies, why does it have to be either/or? There is a trace of Mott the Hoople’s “Saturday Gigs” about these recollections, and if the song’s title sounds anticipatory of the Pet Shop Boys, “Being Boring,” which is about much the same thing, will follow just over a year later. But if the curtain is coming down, Freddie asks himself (for peace?) whether it was all worth the price that ultimately had to be paid, and concludes, smirking: “It was a WORTHWHILE EXPERIENCE!” with a Holly Johnson-esque guffaw. Roger Taylor’s gong reappears from “Bohemian Rhapsody,” while halfway through Freddie barks “We love you MADLY!” (John Deacon via Miles Davis/Duke Ellington?) The final conclusion appears to be: it’s worth hanging on in there. For now.

Monday 27 July 2015

Jason DONOVAN: Ten Good Reasons

(#387: 20 May 1989, 2 weeks; 10 June 1989, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Too Many Broken Hearts/Nothing Can Divide Us/Every Day (I Love You More)/You Can Depend On Me/Time Heals/Sealed With A Kiss/Question Of Pride/If I Don’t Have You/Change Your Mind/Too Late To Say Goodbye/Especially For You (duet with Kylie Minogue)

The other side of a not terribly interesting story; while Kylie sings about generally being a doormat, here’s the boy desperately trying to persuade her, or us, that no, he means it, and yes, he loves her even though he’s always away, and no, there’s nobody else, and…well, you can judge from the respective album covers; Kylie smiling against a virginally white background, and Jason, in front of a blood red wall, looking perturbed as though just having been caught out.

The key may well lie in the first song: “Too Many Broken Hearts” can be interpreted as a last-ditch don’t-leave plea or, if you look at it from another angle, the first number one song about impotence since “Band Of Gold” (“Last night I tried to reach you/But somehow it wasn’t enough,” “"So I said, can't you wait a little longer?/I'll give you all that a lover should give"). The song demonstrates, for all SAW's talk of nowness, a surprisingly traditional gait; with only minor alterations in its arrangement, "Too Many Broken Hearts" could have been a hit for the Fortunes in 1965, with its endemically catchy "You give me one good reason to leave me/I'll give you ten good reasons to stay" tag. Shielded by layers of protective double-tracking, speed slowing and backing vocalists, Donovan gives a reasonably lusty reading...of a song which is supposed to be about desperately holding on, in more than one sense.

The trouble is that when Donovan exclaims "I'll be hurt, I'll be hurt, if you walk away" he appears to regard this "hurt" as being on a par with bumping into an errant doorknob, and given that the song may then venture into "Band Of Gold" territory, he sounds more than ever like a confused teenager who hasn't quite worked out which end to hold. The chorus also lets the song down somewhat with its hackneyed "I won't give up the fight for you" meme. The whole is like a gaudily coloured Commonwealth jigsaw puzzle whose pieces never quite seem to fit.

Throughout the remainder of side one he protests his faith perhaps a little too much; “Every Day” sees Donovan anticipating Bryan Adams (“’Cos everything I do, I do it for you”) and its bathetic plea of “I may be working overtime” recalls not only “Always On My Mind” but emphatically also Hot Chocolate’s “Emma,” whose protagonist, you may recall, spends so much time working overtime that he’s never there for Emma when she needs him. “Nothing Can Divide Us,” the album’s best song, is sung with such an air of bafflement that it hides how strange the song really is – “You can put your faith in me/I will never set you free”; what kind of reassurance is that? Herein lies another central problem; although Donovan is technically a reasonably competent singer, so much so that you don’t notice that “Nothing Can Divide Us” covers some three-and-a-half octaves, I have heard Rick Astley’s isolated guide vocal track for the same song and his voice thunders out its message; he knows how to project a song, whereas Donovan sings the notes, so to speak.

Like other SAW albums, the music gets a little headachy after a while with its benign hammer of repetition – although, with SAW, one has to remember that they regard the comment “all the songs sound the same” as the highest of compliments. There are no doomed adventures into daytime Jazz FM land, but the music simply doesn’t let off, hasn’t given itself room to breathe. By the time the side limps to its closer, “Sealed With A Kiss,” one is reaching for the paracetamol.

Brian Hyland's 1962 recording of the song is a record of unalleviated bleakness comparable with "Johnny Remember Me" and "Ghost Town." While Carole King attempted to put a brave, jolly face on the same issue in the same year's "It Might As Well Rain Until September," the five-note dies irae of the opening guitar figure, the distant harmonica and the unreachable wraiths of female backing voices all contribute to the singer's sense of dazed dread that September may never arrive, or that his love is already lost (the sequel to "Sealed With A Kiss" did eventually arrive five years later in the Velvet Underground's "The Gift," a warning that unilateral cherish always has its inbuilt limits).

Hyland sings with the chill of death flowing within his teenage veins, since of course to such teenagers even summer holidays from school are a matter of life and death. Although there is no evidence in the song that any of the singer's idolatry is reciprocated, the most charitable remark I can make about Donovan’s version is that he sings it as Max Bygraves might have sung it; the right notes - well, approximately - but with a complete (verging on detached) lack of attachment to the emotions the song tries meta-clumsily to articulate. It is all done on one, not even especially morose, level. At the song's climax of "You won't be there," and "I don't wanna say goodbye," which Hyland sings as though having just slashed his wrists with fragments from his newly-broken mirror, Donovan can't even get his timing or phrasing right.

His performance is therefore something of an innocent insult. But naturally such concerns failed to register with his fans, most of whom were not old enough to remember Donny Osmond, let alone Brian Hyland, and who ensured that his "Sealed With A Kiss" became the first non-charity single to debut at number one since "Two Tribes." But even this achievement signals the beginning of the decline and devaluation of the singles chart. In the same week there was also a new entry at number two - "The Best Of Me," Cliff Richard's 100th single, and heavily promoted as such, although it was an instantly forgettable routine ballad - and although Cliff's hundredth single attained the same peak position as his first, thirty-one years previously, both he and Donovan dropped down and out of the charts fairly rapidly, and neither record has survived on oldies radio or endured in any other noticeable way. The ground was therefore laid for the charts to becoming yet another marketing tool as opposed to a genuine representation of the public's musical likes at any given period (though some would believe, not without reason, that 'twas ever thus); instant results became required, and by the mid-nineties a first week number one entry would become more or less obligatory for any would-be chart-topper. Thus the stage was set for the rotating passing fancies of a few thousand people rather than for genuine future classics; and thus the overall decline – in the singles chart rather than in SAW’s work; that is yet to come - begins here.

Things get darker, but no better, on side two; now boy and girl appear to be breaking up but the musical merriment is so remorseless and one-dimensional that it’s hard to recognise emotions. Listening to this, its year’s biggest-selling album in Britain, is like being made to eat a dozen sugary chocolate éclairs in a row; it is not long before nausea becomes dominant. While SAW took pride in comparing themselves with Motown, the non-differential attitude is a fallacy; Motown may have been a churn-‘em-out hits factory but its best records depended on a matrix of musicians who not only play the notes they’re given but are also given the freedom to play with them. There is no James Jamerson or Paul Riser in SAW’s work, and drummer “A. Linn” is far from being Benny Benjamin.

Actually, the further you listen to Ten Good Reasons, the crappier it becomes. One is hit over the head, “Mule Train”-style, by song after interchangeable song, insubstantial trifles which I forgot even as I was listening to them. Donovan’s “Change Your Mind” is no Sharpe and Numan (nor is it even a cover of that song), while “Too Late To Say Goodbye” is really a very nasty little song. As with Level 42’s “It’s Over,” he’s gone, left her only a letter, but where Mark King is consumed by the pain of his own guilt, Donovan, the staunch Gabriel Oak who has throughout this record proclaimed his stalwart faith, suddenly announces that he’s found somebody else (“Who gives me all that I need, not like you”). As he merrily rolls away cheerfully singing “I won’t be there watching you cry,” it’s perversity worthy of mid-seventies Lou Reed. It is also the album’s tenth song and its natural closer; here the mask drops and Kylie was right – he really has been a shit all along.

But it’s not the end of the album. Tacked onto its end – and it must have been tacked on – is the big number one duet with Kylie, and suddenly they are together again and happy again and in the context of this record it makes no sense whatsoever. The photograph of the pair suggests a Dickie Valentine and Alma Cogan for their age, but where Kylie is clearly A Star, Jason just resembles a grinning dork (Dick van Dyke? Richard Chamberlain? Stan Laurel?).

With professional perfectionism SAW had put the two of them together for a romantic duet to coincide with the broadcast of Scott and Charlene's wedding in Neighbours, watched by in excess of twenty million Britons. "Especially For You" still had to wait a month at number two behind "Mistletoe And Wine" before ascending to the top, but somehow that was seen as a polite gesture in itself, since the song and performance are so unambiguously nice and wholesome, and it was clear that SAW were setting Kylie and Jason up as the Donny and Marie of their day, without the troublesome subtext of brother and sister singing tender love songs at each other.

The song sees them reunited after an unspecified spell apart, and it is handled with such delicacy; on TV they performed a courtly little dance routine to accompany it, and the overall air is one of a Christmas pantomime duet between the two romantic leads. Kylie clearly takes the lead; her "mmm"s and "ooooh"s leading into the build-up to each chorus are skilful and emotionally connective and there is an audible smile on her face while she is singing. Double tracking and varispeeding disguise Jason's rather lesser voice, but they drift agreeably enough through the song, constructed as only “professionals” could construct it (twenty years previously it might have been a hit for Jackie Trent and Tony Hatch, authors of the Neighbours theme tune) with that question mark of an augmented minor underscoring the eighth bar of each chorus, under "oh so true" as though questioning "how true is this, really?” After all, “all the love I have is especially for you” – what exactly does that mean? That it’s also distributed in lesser quantities elsewhere?

Perhaps you had to watch the soap at the time to understand the phenomenon fully, although I believe that Angry Anderson’s “Suddenly,” the ballad which soundtracked the actual wedding scene, is far more upfront and heartfelt in both intent and delivery, and other singing actors approached the secondary art with far more adventure and enterprise – David Essex, for example, was fully the equal of Kevin Coyne and Peter Hammill in the seventies, David Cassidy’s voice cut through when needed – you believed him, and while Richard Harris admitted he was never the world’s greatest singer, that worked to Jimmy Webb’s advantage enough to yield two very fine albums. But other things in Australia were also ahead of this jolly game; Midnight Oil’s Diesel And Dust reminded us that there was more to that land than boy meets girl, while Michael Hutchence’s Max Q side-project was a considerably bolder take on electropop (imagine Donovan having a go at “Way Of The World” or “Buckethead”).

The trouble with Ten Good Reasons – well, one of them, anyway – lies, I think, in the overall presentation and especially the presence of “Sealed With A Kiss”; as with Kylie, here is a cover of a pre-Beatles pop song, and one is left with the impression that, given the singers were brought into the studio, did their vocals double-quick under strict supervision, and then emerged at the other end, what SAW wanted was a world where rock ‘n’ roll had never happened; where popular music was a polite procedural straight back to the days of 1953-4 with well-scrubbed, clean-minded singers who never offended anybody but never stayed in anybody’s mind. No doubt when faced with such a viewpoint, SAW would shrug their shoulders in genuine what’s-wrong-with-that? Bafflement and furthermore say that their records were never for people like me anyway. I wonder how many of the teenage girls who screamed at Jason and these songs, and who are now in or approaching their forties, view this music now other than with fond personal nostalgia.

It was a bit of an aesthetic quandary, but typically Lena pointed out a comparison from left field which I had not even considered – and yes, I have to be hard, up to a point, with SAW because once upon a time, and in not dissimilar circumstances, there were…

What we know about, and how we value, The Shaggs were down to the stubborn perseverance of their father Austin Wiggin Jr. Taking one of his mother’s palm readings as a prophecy, he took his daughters out of school, bought them instruments and essentially pushed them into writing songs and performing as a band. The girls were not sure that they were ready for making a record, but their father was insistent; sure enough, twelve songs were taped and the Philosophy Of The World album was ready to run.

It may well be that pére Wiggins was a tyrant with a temper. But he must have heard what few others, including the group themselves, could hear. Listening to Philosophy is a little like listening to three musicians playing three separate songs at the same time, or a jigsaw puzzle of a pop group whose pieces are not quite in alignment. They sang of simple but resonant things, of world love (the title song), the importance of parents (“Who Are Parents?”) and God (“We Have A Savior”) and did it with such inconvertible honesty that complaining that the drummer wasn’t quite doing what the two guitarists were doing seemed petty.

This was the music of teenagers who weren’t allowed out of the house to go to gigs, who were influenced purely by the pop they heard on the radio – mainly Herman’s Hermits, Ricky Nelson and the Monkees. This worked in their favour; if Philosophy had been put together by some arthouse smart alecks, you would have seen right through it on a first listen. But more importantly, what you hear is a group in the throes of learning how to play together. Terry Adams’ Ornette comparisons aren’t really fair (except that Coleman had his own unshakeable notion of tonality and how to use it), although the late Helen Wiggin’s drumming, when coaxed away from basic midtempo 4/4, occasionally rolls like the young Denardo, for example on “My Pal Foot Foot.” Likewise, on songs such as “My Companion” and “Things I Wonder,” Dorothy and Betty’s guitars shift regularly out of recognised harmonic consonance. On “My Pal Foot Foot,” the three musicians even, if only by accident, discover new ways of interacting.

Finally, the group slowly forms into something not yet quite together, but approaching notions of coherence. “Why Do I Feel?,” the album’s longest song, at just under four minutes, sees the musicians reaching some kind of rapprochement; by the time we reach “We Have A Savior,” they are playing as an almost recognisable group. Crucially, these unforgiving hothouse conditions gave the Wiggin sisters a chance to show the world what they were really like, lets us witness the formation of something from what might initially seem like nothing. Whereas with Ten Good Reasons, the system appears to have been: get it clean and get it right and anyone can come in and do what they like on top, as long as it’s what we like. I’m not sure that’s what music was, or is, meant to be about.

Friday 24 July 2015

SIMPLE MINDS: Street Fighting Years

(#386: 13 May 1989, 1 week)

Track Listing:  Street Fighting Years/Soul Crying Out/Wall Of Love/This Is Your Land/Take A Step Back/Kick It In/Let It All Come Down/Mandela Day/Belfast Child/Biko/When Spirits Rise

"Students, we came too late. We are sorry. You talk about us, criticize us, it is all necessary. The reason that I came here is not to ask for your forgiveness. What I want to say is that you are all getting weak, it has been seven days since you went on a hunger strike, you can't continue like this. As time goes on, your body will be damaged beyond repair, it could be very life-threatening. Now the most important thing is to end this strike." - Zhao Ziyang, May 19th, 1989

It was an exhausting spring, the spring of '89; none of the signifiers of spring seemed to bring very much calm - not the green grass, the blue skies, flowers, the lilac tree blooming - it felt a bit like living in a picture book, where I was.  Very calm, while outside in the world, it was anything but calm.  It was fine that a spirit of change and freedom was in the air, but you have to have your health to enjoy it, or even fight for it.  By now I was nearly done with Ryerson - as mentioned before I graduated, I had time to do nothing and nothing was about all I could do, recovering from anaemia as I was.  I went out for groceries as my mom didn't feel like doing it (we also, for the first and last time ever, had groceries delivered to us - my mom couldn't drive*, so father's car was useless to us) and at some point I bought - while still having to go to Ryerson for exams - this album.

I remember listening to it on my father's old tape deck - it could record tape-to-tape and it also had a function where you could play a tape on repeat, which is just what I did one day with Street Fighting Years, laying on my bed and trying to gain some sense of things....

I press play and it starts...

A bass; a few notes, then a rhythm, not a fast one, more one that ambles along, with some drums and other percussion joining in; then some guitar and keyboards, and Jim arrives last...and like the rest of the music, his voice is quiet.  This isn't like, say, Sparkle In The Rain at all...

"Chased you out of this world...suddenly you were gone.."  The music gains strength, and his voice introduces the key line and idea - "here comes a hurricane."  No amount of patient Trevor Horn production (for it is he, he who has waited so long to work with them) is going to mask what is going on here.  "Will you look down this way...I need you 'round me."  Charlie Burchill plays the blues, dammit.  The song increases and is like a scene of amazing 360 degree completeness...and then, stops...

...I get a shiver from the new chords as Kerr sings "there's a multitude of candles in the windows of this world" and "we've got panic in the evening...I hear your sister call out (Sister Feelings Call)...don't you think that I don't care and don't you think that I don't know" And finally "I love you, I live for you..." as the song calms down and then resolves itself, eerily.  Some of this is boomed out with that mid-80s voice of Kerr's but mostly it's been softened, hushed, and hidden somehow.  The song is big, and Kerr meets its bigness, but he seems vulnerable, lost, unknown.  The maelstrom is upon us and all his previous music has been powerless to stop it.  The one phrase that sticks out for me here in this late tumult is "things won't be the same."  "I hear big wheels turning" he says twice, as if it is him vs. the machine, and he is doing his best, darn it, to adjust.  But it is tough; these are the "street fighting years" and there is indeed panic on the streets...

"Soul Crying Out" is less a mountain of a song but a documentary.  This album was recorded in Scotland and has, even for Simple Minds, a profoundly Scottish outlook on things.  The rhythms of the street are always what count here, and here is Scotland, facing the Poll Tax a year before England "the government says you have to pay pay pay."  And then, without much warning, these lines:  "I see the woman with tears in her eyes/I hear the baby, crying in the night/Something on the bed, was it something she said..."  And remember this is a man who is married, who has a child of his own.  The world is shrunk down to that trio, and the words of escape - everyone is crying out, crying for relief, for escape - points to domestic disintegration.  (Disintegration by The Cure was #3 behind this album and entry #287.)  He wants "peace of mind" but if you do not have it at home, you do not have it anywhere.  All the chaos of the outside is reflected by the sorrow indoors; or vice versa.  This is a tough thing to pull off, without sounding pathetic, but at the time I didn't know that there was such discord, it was not literal but figurative for me.

"Wall Of Love" is a booming tough song with delicate Horn touches; the Wall is of course in Berlin, and the wall Kerr wants is a new one, not just in Berlin but in "the townships of Soweto."  The "devil with his chainsaw" wants to cut it down, but that wall is going to be built.  "I believe one great day the rain will come and wash this mess away."  Yes, Taxi Driver signifies here, as much as "the prisoner in the wagon while the children chase the dragon."  "There's people making love tonight" he sings as the song ends, but that love, that reaching out, making the wall of love, is somehow still "not enough."

Quiet, then a sound like a gong; a simple line from Burchill, some percussion, and all is calm again.  "This Is Your Land" is like getting out of a stuffy car and breathing in the sea air.  It is also a call to Scottish nationalism, at a time when that was unfashionable.  The rambling lyrics see old people, the sky, the city, the sea and the ancient places.  Then look who shows up but...Lou Reed to say "Money can't buy can't buy me...I' is on my side."  "You don't know what you've got 'til the whole thing's gone, the days are dark, the road is long" says Kerr quietly, and then Reed replies "When you go away, when hope is gone, tell me what is right...what is wrong."  And with that endorsement from a man who knows what it's like to stand for a place himself (hello, New York), Kerr comes back to say once again that you have to take where you live in your hand, to hold it, to possess it - to defend it.  (How many places gain their freedom and independence during this time of uncertainty?)  And yes Lisa Germano comes in at the end with her violin, the song becomes a march, a march to self-determination and independence.  I can't say I knew that much about Scottish nationalism at the time, but the fractals of land on the cover and the multicolored view of a city - is it Glasgow? - inside point to a rethinking of things, of a taking account. 

Bolstered by this, the last song on side one comes in with a drum roll, and who knows what goes on behind closed doors?  Is he singing to the people of Scotland, or to the world or person?  There's the early line about "try to shake the deep foundations of this land" but then we are in that fancy hotel and I can see this through a haze of angry, tearful phone calls and "Take A Step Back" has a new meaning beyond getting a fresh perspective.  Is the narrator - it's Kerr, that's clear - is he the "wanderer" who hears that "the rumors all around, said you're coming back to me"?  Well yes, but it is clear from the music - unsettling, rattling like the train the narrator is on somehow - that it is too late.  "Don't tell me it's a bad dream/"Don't tell me it's not what it seems" - there is an unease at the heart of this song of deceit and of rollercoasters of emotions and actions.  Kerr is the needle in the haystack, elusive, not gracious or accepting, but cold and angry.  The 80s are coming to an end, and a lot is coming to an end with them....

...the tape ch-chunks over to side two.  My room feels a bit small by this point...

"Kick It In" starts with some organ, guitar, synth, sliding up to a beat that is big, ambitious.  Never forget how ambitious this band in; Kerr steps in and sings of a city that is destroying itself, only to build itself up.  Could it be Glasgow?  The city wants you to "spread your love all over town" as he says, and the song is a sprint up a hill, a race down Montrose Street to the very center, a leap across the Clyde itself....and then this pulsing beat disappears for a moment as Kerr sings "Take off with me..."  (This after closing the door so the demons - whatever and whoever they are - won't get in.)  The song stops and pauses, hazy, as the city - not just Glasgow but any city, appears...then song picks up again, and that phrase "new gold dream" appears out of nowhere, as if that dream won't happen without some demolition, some adventure, some renewal.  And the song ends on a heavy note, abruptly, as the work is there to be done and there's only so much that needs to be said....

As the decade ends, there is a sense that there are a few things left hanging that need to be tended to, old losses that are still niggling away that have to be addressed.  The decade is collapsing, caving in on itself, it seems both big and hollow at the same time....

...and "Let It All Come Down" is one of the exit songs of the decade.  If it seems like the sibling of The Korgis' "Everybody's Got To Learn Sometime" then that's due to Trevor Horn, who helped out the band with the song - but this is sung clearly to someone, from Kerr to Hynde (the "get close" is a direct pointer to her Get Close) and it is sung at night, anticipating a sunny but cold morning.  She is crying, and he is encouraging her to cry, to keep crying.  The music is big, ennobling, scary in a way.  If you have ever been in a breakup, on either side, you know how awful it is, how much crying there is, how horrible it can be.  "I cry and cry, and this isn't like the crying all the times before, not lusty and somehow pleasurable.  This is the coldest, loneliest feeling in the world" as Julie Powell puts it in Cleaving.  "All is in control (she's lost control again) love is on the open road...make me wanna live, make me wanna die" he sings as the piano picks up, then moans wordlessly, and comes back to the shining sun, the one spot of light possible.  "So let it all....let all come down" he sings, and the song is quiet and then crashes in, collapses, as Burchill once again plays the blues.  There is nothing left to say.  Words are not meaningless, but this is beyond words.  The main theme, the terrible truth, comes back, or rather looks over its shoulder at the ruins of the song, the end of the relationship.  It is The Korgis' song from 1980 that acted as one of the first songs to mourn Ian Curtis (there are so many that unofficially do this, but the end of the song does refer to Joy Division) and here we are with that grief echoed yet again, circled back to, as if the decade cannot end with at least one more song about his loss.  As bright and shiny as the 80s were, all that is rubbing off now, and it is ending where it began...

"Mandela Day" is, by contrast, a song that looks forwards - it is an act of magical thinking, and it has the light air of something that is confident, hopeful, warm.  It sounds vaguely African without being Paul Simon about it, and was written specifically for the Mandela Day concert in June 1988.  It is a song celebrating his release before he has been released - much as "New Gold Dream" looked to '83 and '84, to a Utopian future.  It has been 25 years, and now he is free; free as he is now so well-known that his fame, even before release, is a kind of liberation.  The sun rises too in this song, but its promise is not the cold one of the previous song, but the warm one of fresh air, no shackles, and liberation not just for him but for all his people...."what's goin' on" sings Kerr at the end, another link back to the past...

Sometimes a song has one meaning, no matter where you first hear it; songs can change in emphasis, however, if you are in a different place than most listeners, and I use the word “place” in more than one sense here…

As I've said at this time I was still living in Oakville - a quiet, modest, reasonably well off town full of people from the UK who had at some point decided to leave and try their luck in Canada. At least two of my father’s fellow teachers at Sheridan College were from the UK, and there were countless others across Canada who left for whatever reason and yet still felt a pull towards home, even if they could not return. To hear a song that explicitly calls for native sons and daughters to ‘come on home’ is perhaps one thing when heard on one side of the Atlantic, and quite another across the ocean. (My favorite Pogues song by far is “Thousands Are Sailing” which also came out around this time; and let’s not forget The Proclaimers’ “Letter From America” that lists the towns devastated as residents moved away, were forced out…)

What to do if your home and native land (to quote “O Canada”) is full of violence? What if you leave? How can you go back when you know very well awful things are continuing to happen? “Someday we’ll return here” he sings, “when the Belfast child sings again.” (Echoing, if a bit clunkily, of all things, “Someday We’ll Be Together.” Part of the confusion of the song is that Kerr sings the verses as someone leaving and then in the chorus as someone encouraging himself and others to return.) This is a song that tugs rather heavily on what is usually buried or not talked about, not without some diligent prodding, and that is the idea of home and where one’s actual ‘home’ is. It is an awkward subject for a song and yet when he cries out “The streets are EMPTY!” and then quietly resigned, nearly whispers “Life goes on…” – that is the punctum for me. Life goes on whether the person – indeed the people – return.

So the picture here is of a man talking to himself in a room, his own heart breaking and being vulnerable – overly-vulnerable you might say – to the quiet and semi-buried misery of others, their own losses and longings. It is as if the shiny yellow New Pop balloon has burst and here he is, seeing the world in a new (fractal and fragmented) way, full of separations. “But all’s not lost!” he sings at one point, however – he still has that “81-82-83-84″ optimism that something is going to change; not right now, but something is going to happen.  And as any exile or expat knows, you are often in the odd position of feeling as if you are in two places at once, and having to make a decision, if you can, as to where you really want to be.  "Belfast Child" is about wanting joy and return and renewal again, but the lumbering quality of the song shows just what a struggle this is.  To miss someone is one thing, but to miss an entire culture and land is another....

And so back to 1980 and Peter Gabriel and "Biko" - Simple Minds toured as support for Gabriel back then, and this is their tribute to him as well as Steven Biko; this album has several of Gabriel's band members on it as well**, so another circle is neatly drawn together.  Simple Minds' version is less stark than the original, but no less felt; if Gabriel introduced many to the horror of his death, then here the horror is known, famous, almost turned into a curse against his oppressors.  There is the sense - all the way through - that something else is being referred to, via the synth/bagpipe skirls.  The fire of nationalism is there, the wind will blow it higher, and indeed something already is happening.  The world is going to change, in this year, in 1990, and in decades to come.  Scotland - the other Other in so many of these songs - is evoked yet again, as Kerr reaches for the quiet in his voice - "gotta wake 'em up, gotta face up - I think you've gotta wake 'em up...never turn away."  And the song ends, puuuuuuuussssssssssssooooooooossshhhhmmmmm, with the finality of a roll of thunder.

"When Spirits Rise" makes all this subtext, text.  An instrumental that has all the bagpipe and drum corps strictness and passion you could want, it lures and ennobles again, as if that Utopian future really is possible if you are already there in spirit, that your energy and determination are always aimed for it.  The calling to a higher consciousness - to a sense that the world is much bigger than your bedroom, and that it includes you, you there eating your defrosted breakfast early on a chilly morning, is one that is not always welcome.  It can seem like a burden, but the promise of the burden is that you will be (paging Public Enemy) doing the right thing.

This album shows the struggle to get to that point, beyond the personal heartaches, or rather through them, to something bigger, something that you can put your heart and spirit into, if only it's a march, a signature on a petition, or an actual action like volunteering or changing a personal habit or method of doing things.  The 80s have come crashing down, and there's a lot of building and refurbishing to do, and the chaos and uncertainty these times have lends itself to both tiny and sweeping gestures. 

As it says on the inner sleeve, "Out there in the darkness, out there in the night, out there in the starlight, one soul burns brighter than a thousand suns."  But you have to stay strong and healthy to keep your soul going, and your spirits up.  This is yet another album that helped to make that possible (for me and others), and I am guessing was only too tangible for those living in Scotland, and other places where weary spirits needed it.  A new decade beckons...              

* My spatial relations are so bad that driving for me is pretty much an impossibility; if I could just walk everywhere I'd be happiest.

**Stewart Copeland plays drums on this song; Mel Gaynor and Manu Katche play them elsewhere.  

Thursday 16 July 2015

Holly JOHNSON: Blast

(#385: 6 May 1989, 1 week)

Track listing: Atomic City/Heaven’s Here/Americanos/Deep In Love/S.U.C.C.E.S.S./Love Train/Got It Made/Love Will Come/Perfume/Feel Good

“Beyond Action and Reaction we would establish ourselves.”
In the spring of 1989, few pop stars commanded more sheer goodwill than Holly Johnson. Having escaped from the wreckage of Frankie, and emerged victorious from a lengthy court case against ZTT, which had sought to place an injunction on him preventing him from recording as a solo artist for any other record company – the presiding judge deemed it an unreasonable restraint of trade, commenting that “Mr Johnson could be 70 years old and still be bound to this contract” – he was ready to make himself heard, and people were ready to listen.

It is difficult to consider his first solo album as not being substantially rooted in personal experience; indeed there are subtle FGTH references throughout – the escalating drum pattern midway through “Love Train,” the way in which Johnson pronounces and elongates the word “war” in the line “You want to end all war” in “S.U.C.C.E.S.S.” (and the nuclear explosion which ends the same song). But, as he sings in “Got It Made,” he’s “escaped from the hands of the Marquis de Sade,” and you can’t help but feel his innate sense of deliverance from a deeply unpleasant recent past.

Certainly Johnson sounds much more at home with the likes of Dan Hartman, Andy Richards, Steve Lovell and Stephen Hague than he ever did with the ZTT team – far more of his self is on display here – and for repeated listening I would much rather turn to Blast than Pleasuredome. There’s an inviolable optimism about his singing which I always find reassuring, even when (as with most of this album) what he sings about is deeply pessimistic. “Atomic City” sees him emerging in triumph from a wrecked landscape of metallic clangs and electronic bleeps over a propulsive post-House beat. He co-wrote the song with Hartman (all nine other songs were written solely by Johnson) and it does play like an odd subversion of what Hartman did with James Brown on “Living In America.” Johnson’s apparent enthusiasm is enough to make anybody want to go to Atomic City, but listen carefully – “We’ve got no ozone/We’ve got radiation/See the air pollution/From the power station.”

But Johnson is not deterred from proposing a happy ending. “If time stood still on my windowsill,” he observes, “I’d squash it like a fly.” He urges an uprising, and so the song is an unexpected reaction to the opulent nihilism of “Two Tribes,” suggesting that there is a way out.

“We start from opposite statements of a chosen world. Set up violent structure of adolescent clearness between two extremes.”
Johnson wasn’t the first ex-Frankie to make a statement. In the autumn of 1988 Paul Rutherford worked with ABC to produce the magnificent and savage New Pop/Acid House hybrid that was “Get Real.” It should have been a number one but the BBC, as usual, got canting cold feet and couldn’t deal with it; consequently the highly inventive parent album Oh World did not gain a British release until 2011.

But Johnson, if superficially more cleancut, was scarcely less candid; he just dressed his sex and politics up in politer clothing. Hence “Heaven’s Here” is a catchy and upbeat late eighties pop song about the goodness of love, until, once again, you listen more closely and catch such references as “Blue skies, white lies and cherry pies” and then “Why waste your time in a living hell?/You can live in cloudland just as well!”

“We discharge ourselves on both sides.”
“Americanos” I interpret as part love letter to the USA, and part deep scepticism. On “Atomic City” he has a go at crappy television gameshows, and in the video for “Americanos” he plays the hugely camp host of a crappy television gameshow, the twist being that the dirt-poor contestants clean up with the prizes rather than the rich ones. He wistfully dreams about what you can build up from nothing in America, but there is the fleeting reference to “low riding Chicanos” in one of the choruses, as well as swipes at advertising, organised crime and the underlying hypocrisy of free enterprise. The final verdict? America – he loves it really, but wouldn’t want to live there.

“We fight first on one side, then on the other, but always for the SAME cause, which is neither side or both sides and ours.”
More upbeat positivity in “Deep In Love” or so you hope. Actually, the deeper you delve into the song, the more you realise that it’s not about a love affair but about the living death of consumerism (the chorus in part goes “Your love consumes me”), and the nearest thing to organism that capitalism can imagine is when “you’ve reached the limit on your credit card.” Think of 1983’s “Key To The World” and we are not at all far from the world of Heaven 17. Fairly frightening, once you get into the song’s depths.

“Mercenaries were always the best troops.”
“S.U.C.C.E.S.S.” is a parody; well, it has to be, a Hi-NRG “Imagine” whose demands grow more and more patently absurd and clearly impossible, from wanting fame to going into outer space. Eventually, of course, you’re advised not to be satisfied with anything less…than the world’s end.

“We are primitive Mercenaries in the Modern World.”
“Love Train” was his big comeback single and a deserved top five hit, an absolutely immaculate, catchy and propulsive pop song (with a cameo guitar solo appearance by Brian May) – I remember Gene Pitney, of all hurt people, being particularly effusive about its merits on Radio 1’s Round Table record review show – but what is this? “I reached my peak,” “You’re just right to keep me up all night,” “Stoke it up,” “Keep the flames burning”; this is much more to the point than “Relax” and who noticed under its cheery topsoil?

“Our Cause is NO-MAN'S.”
If “Got It Made” is an explosion of release from Frankie hell, then “Love Will Come” is perhaps Johnson’s most heartfelt vocal on the record; he frequently sounds close to tears in the choruses, as he wends his way towards the ambiguous conclusion that life is not about consumerism; “Now we know, love is the only thing that we get for free – or do we?” In both songs, guest guitarist Vini Reilly, unmistakeable even when rocking, sounds positively exuberant, much gladder than he had been a year earlier.

“We set Humour at Humour's throat. Stir up Civil War among peaceful apes.”
Maybe “Perfume” was meant to be Johnson’s Prince moment, and it’s certainly the record’s most sensual moment; perhaps the metaphor of perfume as sex (“rub it in” etc.) was new, but it’s a timely reminder that “keeping it clean” is not the primary point of Johnson’s fight.

“We only want Humour if it has fought like Tragedy.”
If “Atomic City” is this record’s “Two Tribes” and “Love Train” its “Relax,” then “Feel Good” is its “Power Of Love” equivalent, a slowly unfolding but far more ambivalent ballad, where the singer appears to be in emotional stasis, looking back at his past, missing it and now somewhat marooned (“No tears left to cry/No mountains left to climb”). When he gets into the closing seasonal metaphors, the penny, which has been drawn more and more to the listener’s attention throughout the record, finally drops – Blast plays like a dry run for Robbie Williams, that fellow Aquarian ex-boy band wild card with a past he’s keen to bury and resurrect, frequently at the same time (and it’s hard to imagine that fifteen-year-old Robbie wouldn’t have listened to, and learned from, this record). And the art…the ZTT thing, if some must…has not been forgotten; in the sleeve credits Johnson thanks, or rather BLESSES, “Percy Wyndham Lewis” and “God,” and BLASTS “All the Believers and Deceivers…They know who they are.” The cover resembles a recent explosion; the rear cover suggests reformation and resurrection.

“We only want Tragedy if it can clench its side-muscles like hands on its belly, and bring to the surface a laugh like a bomb.”
But there was another project in which Johnson was invited to participate at this time, one which put him back at number one in the singles chart, and that, though not part of Blast, deserves close attention.

The original Gerry and the Pacemakers recording of "Ferry 'Cross The Mersey" drifted into the British charts like a ghost ship in that excitable winter of 1964. It was used as the theme to a film involving the group as well as Cilla Black and various other notable Liverpudlians of the period; the film is rarely, if ever, revived, and this may not be surprising since, watching it, Merseybeat seems as arcane and distant a cult as Chartism. But the song prospered; although the Mersey Sound had by the turn of '64/5 begun to implode to the point where it really was the Beatles and everyone else, the clouded optimism of Gerry Marsden's song and George Martin's string and French horn arrangement in the manner of "Wonderful Land" still pointed to a time when Liverpool was a place of hope and riches, somewhere everyone wanted to be...Liverpool's "moment."

That dissipated, as "moments" tend to do, and when Frankie Goes To Hollywood revived the song for inclusion on the B-side of the original 12-inch of "Relax" - thus providing a clear link between the first and second acts to top the British charts with their first three singles - they preceded it with a snatch of dole office dialogue from Boys From The Blackstuff; Liverpool in 1983 was on its knees, defeated by Thatcherism on one side and council leader Derek Hatton's reckless careerism on the other. Against this backdrop Holly Johnson sings the song with a strong element of defiance and a new kind of hope; Horn's cavalcade of arpeggios at the end suggest Liverpool not to be beaten, that the North would rise again despite everything.

Then came Saturday 15 April 1989, the afternoon of the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, to be played in the neutral grounds of the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. Traffic delays on the motorway meant that many Liverpool fans did not arrive in time for the kick-off, and thousands crammed the stadium's inadequate entrance turnstiles in an effort to get in. Concerned that some of these fans might be attempting entry to the game without tickets, the police and stewards were loath to let them in en masse, but eventually - and far too late - they opened another gate, with the inevitable inward stampede.

In the wake of Heysel and other misdemeanours - not to mention an underlying contempt for the working classes who, in 1989, still constituted the majority of football crowds - Hillsborough, in line with other stadia, had introduced steel fencing at the front of their crowd stands in order to prevent hooligans from invading the pitch. In those days crowds were still obliged to stand for matches; there was no seating for fear that seats might similarly be ripped up and tossed into the pitch.

But this policy proved disastrous. The sudden influx of spectators caused an immediate crush to those already in the stadium, at the front of the stands, and they were likewise crushed from the other side by the steel fencing. In desperation, some attempted to tear down the fencing and escape onto the pitch, but police, under the impression that they were en route to attacking Nottingham Forest fans at the opposite end, herded them back. The crushing continued; dead bodies began to emerge from the walls of desperate flesh. 96 people were killed, including a fourteen-year-old boy and a man who went into a coma before finally dying in 1993, and nearly 800 others sustained injuries.

The disaster, much like Zeebrugge, was the inevitable consequence of a culture of wilful incompetence and mismanagement. But then the lies started to appear; in part generated by frightened vested interests, in other part encouraged by certain Conservative MPs, under the headline "THE TRUTH" in The Sun - the same newspaper for which Pete Waterman had recorded the Ferry Aid “Let It Be” fundraiser - there were stories of "drunken" Liverpool fans urinating on, or copulating with, the bodies of the dead, pickpocketing their wallets, picking fights with police. It was a PR disaster from which the newspaper has yet to recover on Merseyside - in particular because it, or the editor of the time responsible for it, has never issued an unconditional apology for running the piece, or the headline - to this day many newsagents there continue to blackball it from their shops, and its circulation figures there have remained low.

So the 1989 "Ferry 'Cross The Mersey," recorded by a quickly convened cross-section of Liverpool artists to raise funds for the families of the dead, has to be considered as a protest record; in many ways it is the angriest record SAW ever made - where "I'd Rather Jack" simply has a jibe at out-of-touch radio programmers, the dignified but barely suppressed fury of Waterman's "Ferry" is a direct, controlled attack on the powers which would traduce Liverpool to a thug-crammed subhuman wilderness. Marsden and Johnson were both brought back to recreate their original performances, but there is a renewed intensity in their performances; Marsden in particular sounds at times on the verge of tears in his solo features, while Holly retains his original defiance but makes it somehow deeper - in the "People around every corner" middle eight he stares daggers at those who would doubt that Liverpudlians were happy to welcome and embrace anyone, and his furious focus on the line "Hearts torn in every way" needs no further underlining. Garry Christian, lead singer of the Christians, provides the rich voice of moderation throughout.

But getting Paul McCartney to participate was a genuine coup, and it is he who, at the end of the record, takes it to a further dimension and slowly unleashes the rage which has been simmering beneath the surface for the previous three minutes; as the harmonies modulate, and SAW introduce an adroitly-disguised slow motion/16 rpm House piano line, McCartney suddenly bursts loose: "This land's the place we love!" he howls in terrible anger. "Ferry! Cross the Mersey!" he virtually sobs - the subtext being: don't ever fucking try to do us down, our culture, our way of living, our beliefs.

This "Ferry 'Cross The Mersey" is therefore a profoundly anti-Thatcherite record - anyone lazily categorising Waterman as a nouveau riche Tory missed his fortnightly columns in the teenpop magazine No 1, in which he regularly railed against the poll tax and other manifestations of New Rightism, or his violent decrying of Thatcher and Ian MacGregor apropos the 1984 miners' strike, which he has done on both radio and TV more than once over the years - and in an era when, as recently as May 2007, the likes of Matthew Parris (with regard to that week's local government and Scottish Parliament elections) could still smugly state that Liverpool "doesn't matter," it seems to me still the most propitious, and certainly one of the most telling, of all charity records, since its inherent current of political protest is as inescapable as the original Pacemakers record is from the speakers on any Mersey ferry on which you might happen to step.

* * * *

The surprise is that little seemed to happen with Johnson’s subsequent career in music. There was Hallelujah, a 1990 album of remixes, and then 1991’s Dreams That Money Can’t Buy; unfortunately, disputes with MCA meant that the record received no promotion and was given only a cursory release. For much of its forty or so minutes it does sound like music written under contractual compulsion, and Johnson has said as much, though is not entirely devoid of merit; “Boyfriend ’65,” featuring a near-inaudible Kirsty MacColl on backing vocals (for contractual reasons), is a lost gem, and “Penny Arcade,” with its terrific Courtney Pine tenor solo, is another.

But then health issues became a priority and necessitated a long lay-off; Johnson re-emerged in 1994 with the funny and scabrous autobiography A Bone In My Flute and the one-off pro-LGBT single “Legendary Childen (All Of Them Queer)” (probably his best and most euphoric work). But then he proceeded to make a name for himself as a painter and that work now became predominant, with only 1999’s self-released Soulstream to break the musical silence. By Christmas 2012, however, he was back at number one with his brief but telling contribution to The Justice Collective’s “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” another Hillsborough fundraiser (also involving McCartney and Marsden) and a record produced by Guy Chambers, who appears on Blast as contributing programming to “Feel Good”; as Robbie Williams also sang on “He Ain’t Heavy,” the connection becomes clearer. And then in 2014 he unexpectedly released the excellent Europa, and the old magic was undiminished.

Next: Meanwhile, where was Trevor Horn in all of this?

Tuesday 14 July 2015

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Now That's What I Call Music 14

Now That's What I Call Music 14 [Vinyl]: Music

Track Listing:  Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart (Marc Almond Featuring Gene Pitney)/Two Hearts (Phil Collins)/Stop! (Erasure)/Help!(Bananarama/Lananeeneenoonoo)/Looking For Linda (Hue And Cry)/Fine Time (Yazz)/Four Letter Word (Kim Wilde)/Stop (Sam Brown)/You Got It (Roy Orbison)/She Drives Me Crazy (Fine Young Cannibals)/Need You Tonight (INXS)/Burning Bridges (On And Off And On Again) (Status Quo)/Big Area (Then Jericho)/The Last Of The Famous International Playboys (Morrissey)/Every Rose Has Its Thorn (Poison)/Belfast Child (Simple Minds)/Buffalo Stance (Neneh Cherry)/Good Life (Inner City)/Hey Music Lover (S'Express)/Blow The House Down (Living In A Box)/Promised Land (The Style Council)/Respect (Adeva)/Wild Thing (Tone Loc)/I Live For Your Love (Natalie Cole)/First Time (Robin Beck)/Straight Up (Paula Abdul)/I Only Wanna Be With You (Samantha Fox)/Be My Twin (Brother Beyond)/Love Like A River (Brother Beyond)/All She Wants Is (Duran Duran)/Tracie (Level 42)/Love Changes Everything (Michael Ball)

"In the moments that followed the withdrawal of one wave of history you could see, if you chose to look, a brief glimpse of the undercurrents at work in the late twentieth century." John Higgs, The KLF, pg. 211

This is the inaugural posting on Then Play Long of an irregular series - albums that would have been number one but for the fact that they were various artists albums.  At some point in 1988 enough music industry people (Stock, Aitken and Waterman being three) complained that their artists were not getting a fair chance at the top because of the omnipresent nature of the Now and Hits compilations.  Rick Astley should have gotten to the top with his second album; Sade would have; and so on.  And so the official chart began a separate chart for such compilations; on the NME chart, though, the rule didn't apply and this album was there at the top for a week in April.

Because of the "unofficial" quality of this, I feel free (well, I always do, that's obvious) to mention a few other albums as well, and to cherrypick from The Hits Album 10, too - so this covers roughly the spring of '89, as that came out in June...

....which brings me to my last semester at Ryerson, a hectic and not always unpleasant time.  For reasons I still don't understand, I was given the job of the editorial page on The Ryersonian as the person who first had it wasn't opinionated enough.  I tried to be serious with my opinions while pleasing the actual editor and head of Journalism, while running completely inane person-on-the-street questions underneath.  It wasn't exactly perfect, but our edition never missed a deadline, and the tv installed up in the corner of the composing room (so we could follow the Dubin enquiry into athlete doping after Ben Johnson) was always turned on to MuchMusic anyway, our deadline on Tuesday being heralded by the country part of the program schedule, Outlaws & Heroes.  It was stressful but good; I wrote poetry on the side that was okay now that I think about it, and some of it was published in the White Wall Review.  If I focused on the present - this sentence, that essay, that exam, this poem, that seat - I was fine.  But there is only so much commuting and writing anyone can do, and I graduated with no real goal or ambition.  (I felt alone in this respect, as you'll see.)  My health was so bad I had to get iron pills that spring and as I can't swallow pills, I had the, uh, "fun" of smashing them up and eating them on toast with strawberry jam or (a better method) smashing them up and eating them quickly via ice cream.  Anaemia is what I was fighting, though a general lassitude was another.  I went to our graduation dinner at a fancy hotel by the lake and as I was a vegetarian at the time, I got...a plate of fruit.*  For dinner.  It was most embarrassing, and I didn't go to my graduation ceremony as my father wouldn't get to see me graduate, and my mom isn't much for ceremonies, anyhow.

In the meantime, the world of music was changing; even I could see that.  The brief glimpse that Higgs talks about he dates at 1991, but for me it starts earlier (maybe being a poetical half-exhausted opinionated outsider helped).  Decades tend to speed up as they go, but the 80s was just go-go-go for so long that by '89 it was disintegrating before my eyes, the 90s were already here, save for the calendar.  I wasn't sure about the 90s, but then time itself - so regimented for so long - began to take on a different and horrible dimensions.  I was ill, pale, in need of good cheer, and music had to rise up to help me...

...and so to Now 14... the figurative diner where I have had my portobello burger and onion rings and shake and now am having my tin roof sundae** and looking over the songs here...some I have done before, or will do, and by 1989 standards there are some I know and some I don' make things easy, all hopped up on the sundae as I am, I'm going to categorize: 

Cover Versions

"Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart"- The bracing dramatic New England blizzard that is Gene Pitney finally gets to number one, courtesy of fan Marc Almond, whose warm and equally melodramatic voice make this declaration of love - from blues and grays to scarlets - quite stunning.  Pitney had a hit with it back in 1967 and its confiding tone - it's like an aria, really - meant he recorded it in Italian, where its title in English is "You Don't Know, Man."  And that is how bold it is - out of the darkness comes light, out of pain comes blessed relief.  I didn't hear this at the time, alas, but how good is it to hear Almond's proclaiming and then hear Pitney's voice - there hasn't been anyone quite like him since, and I doubt there will be. 

"Help!" - This was the Comic Relief single in February, long before the public were requested to wear deely-boppers (I think) and DJs exhausted themselves one way or another to raise money.  It's Bananarama and Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French and Kathy Burke together to make up Lananeeneenoonoo and it works as Bananarama play it straight and the others are what's missing - i.e. they are John Lennon making fun of the song and wouldn't he have loved it?  (McCartney's recent quotes about The Beatles, amongst many other things, makes me think he would.  Also, Paul, shut up and play the bloody bass.)

"Promised Land" - Paul Weller & Co. didn't do that many cover versions, but this is Chicago House DJ/producer Joe Smooth's song and it's done with mmmmmmmmmmmmlllllllaaaah flair and sincerity, the joy and optimism here is genuine, but their label didn't think anyone would want a Style Council album that was all House-style songs, and it was scrapped and the soulcialists broke up soon after.  Modernism:  A New Decade didn't see the light until the late 90s, by which time Weller had probably become mates with Noel Gallagher (maybe later?) and he really should do a dance album now, shouldn't he?  The message of this song is timeless, he might do it again... 

"Respect" - Or, you thought it couldn't be done, but this is a great House version of the Otis Redding & Aretha Franklin song. Patricia Daniels plays with the words, woooooo-woo-woo-woos them, makes the song her own, darlings.  "Come on and respect me when I'm cleaning, come on and respect me when I'm cooking" she sings, and with her "Respect ME respect MEE AY AY" and the house piano dancing all over the song with her, it is a classic.  Daniels came out of her church choir to the world of house, as did someone else I'll be getting to soon...

"I Only Wanna Be With You" has to be one of the least necessary cover versions of all time; even by her not-very-high standards, it's only so-so.  That Dusty Springfield herself was working with the Pet Shop Boys and was known to a whole new generation of fans was a good thing.  This, uh, not so much.  Even The Tourists are better than this, and I'm saying that as someone who likes the Eurythmics a lot more.

Soulcialism And Its Discontents

"Looking For Linda" - Hue and Cry do Level 42 better than Level 42 shock!  Possibly the only song to mention Paisley, this is soulcialism done right - focus on the particular, not the general.  Linda and the narrator meet on the train, and the narration is worthy of Henry Green - there's romance, drinking, running away from a man, and constant longing.  Musically it's jazzy and lovely and the whole song is very fine. 

"She Drives Me Crazy" has already been discussed over here; suffice it to say there are only a few bands who did the veni, vidi and vici thing, and Fine Young Cannibals was one such band.  If only more could do that.

"Blow The House Down" - Whenever I hear Living In A Box I am reminded that the late Bobby Womack covered their song "Living In A Box" and I would rather hear him doing this song than them.  Still soulcialist, but with lyrics like "We have got the power to build the highest tower/Standing with our feet on the ground" - this is the tower, I guess, of righteousness that will blow the house (of Parliament?) down.  I am not sure this kind of big-lunged bluster (complete with "rock guitar solo") is going to work after the Second Summer of Love, and it was not really a tower that helped to end a particular woman's career as PM, as we shall see....

"Love Like A River" - Climie Fisher's last hit, and recognizably them without otherwise being particularly good or bad.  This is the sort of thing that is about love being like water, saving the narrator from living in a desert, etc.  It's all very Magic 105.4 brunch background music on a Sunday, but nothing else, and I'm not even sure it's remembered outside of the Climie Fisher fandom. 

"Tracie" - In which Level 42 aren't just missing Tracie but are also missing Boon and Phil Gould, so this sounds like a diet version of Level 42, lacking that vital something - a song? - and just skirting around this loss and never really getting down into a genuine feeling.  Which is a shame as Tracie was a real person.  Guitarist Alan Murphy (who had been in Go West) joined the band in '88, died of AIDS in late '89, which is of course far worse than this being a meh single. 

Good Morning Radio One

"Two Hearts" - In which you can have Lamont Dozier help write a song and it's only bearable because of him.  From the movie Buster, where a criminal's life is whitewashed because it's really about Buster's relationship with his wife, and not so much about the crime.  Even in this light, Phil Collins told Charles and Diana not to attend the premiere of it as it is about the Great Train Robbery, which in some quarters is the Worst Thing That Ever Happened, Short Of WWII.  In 1988 terms, at least.  But the song is bright and breezy, a pastiche that works because of Dozier.   

"Stop!" - Oh the multicolored and flashing and almost overly-awake world of Erasure!  And, uh, confusing too - I mean there's Andy Bell talking about "we'll be together again" and how no one is going to separate him and his Other, but then the chorus is all about how others want them to slow down and be cautious.  Don't jump before you look say these faceless people, but the narrator and his Other are never going to be separated, and that "again" means maybe they were before?  Why do I think this is some lost song from a Jane Austen musical?  A very busy song, and one that, despite its cheer (and the odd echo of "And Then He Kissed Me" in the verses) is all about defiance of the worrybots.

"You Got It" - The return of Gene Pitney was within the mourning period for Orbison, a dry Texas plain hiding riches and depths.  It is too bad that Orbison is singing on what is essentially a tailor-made ELO record here (you can hear Jeff Lynne in the background), putting a limit on this song, which if produced differently could have been as dramatic as Pitney's song is, really.  (And then on the title track "Mystery Girl" he's supposed to be Bono.  I'm sure it's a fine album if you can ignore all these things, but come on, Orbison deserved better than that.)  The Traveling Wilburys are on the TPL schedule, and how well do I remember my Reporting teacher pausing to listen to Roy's part on their singles, when the videos was being shown on MuchMusic.  He always smiled, and I do the same.

"Burning Bridges (On And Off And On Again)" - Status Quo are one of those groups beloved in the UK but unknown in North America, so I didn't hear this at the time and apart from its odd highland-fling parts thrown in I am not really sure what makes it different from any other uptempo single by them.  This was later adapted as "Come On You Reds" in the 90s for Manchester United.  The original seems to be about a man who thinks he can leave someone but really can't - it is all false bluster, but deep down he's sad.  A cheery song about misery...

"Big Area"- Gives the impression that something of importance is going to happen, but besides the cheekbones of one Mark Shaw I am not really sure there is much to admire here. "Living far beyond my means, do you know how that feels?" he sings, and the big area is apparently somewhere inside him - his heart, his mind, his soul, his liver?  I am still not sure.

"Every Rose Has Its Thorn"- The US Christmas number one, if that counts for anything.  Power ballad by the numbers, but not that bad, all things considered.  I'm not sure why it is that cowboys always sing sad songs, but they sure do, and even hair metallers have to slow down sometimes and talk about how love hurts.  Bret Michaels wrote this after he talked with his girlfriend on the phone (he was calling from a laundromat) and he had been crushed as he heard another man's voice in the background while talking with her.  Yes, even glam metal bands do their own laundry, folks. 

"First Time" - This is a song so devoid of anything close to true feeling that of course it was used as a commercial for Coca-Cola, which then propelled this to number one.  I am sure Robin Beck was happy about this, but it's no "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing" - there has been no lasting impact here, though she is still out there performing to this day.  Doing work that is strictly commercial is not a terrible thing per se, but nowadays songs themselves stand unaltered, unlike the 80s, when a song was a mannequin to hang an ad on. 

"Be My Twin" - In which Brother Beyond work with Stephen Hague so it sounds like the Pet Shop Boys while still being a nice but kind of forgettable song, which is too bad - they are the anti-Bros, after all, and I want to like this a lot more than I do. 

"Love Changes Everything" will be dealt with along all the other songs on Aspects of Love.  Oh, you thought we were done with musicals?  Nope! 

What Becomes A Legend Most?

"Four Letter Word" - This section is all about daughters; not that I knew Kim Wilde was anyone's daughter in particular at the time, and I don't even think it was released as a single in North America.  But it is a fine ballad (written by father Marty and brother Ricky) about no, not that word, not that one either, but love.  "How can the love that she has be profane/And how can something that's so beautiful/Just Jeckyl and Hyde around?" she sings, and the divine love she had has fallen into the abyss, though this is as smooth as a river stone and Wilde's singing is quietly despairing and disappointed - she knows what love is about.

"Stop" - Also a daughter, though again at the time I didn't know Sam Brown at all - unlike Kim she seemed to come out of nowhere with this torchy ballad that is amazing - the whole thing works because of her voice and I think she almost cries at the end!  The horror of knowing "you're not the only one" in your Other's life is at the heart of this song, and Brown gets down into it, making the desperation and anguish leap out.   

"I Live For Your Love" is a Natalie Cole ballad - yes, I knew who her father was at the time - but this is soft and squishy and nice in a stuffed toy way.  She sings it really well and the song is on the brink of existential nothingness, but it's so sweet that you might not notice.  The narrator only lives for her Other's love and nothing else actually matters.  "I just can't go on anymore" she sings, smiling, "I hate to admit it." You never know with some songs, do you?

"Need You Tonight" - I've already mentioned how great Kick is over here, but this is one of those songs that sounds just as fresh today as it ever did; slinky, genuinely sexy, minimalist.  Eventually I will get to it over at Music Sounds Better With Two, where no doubt I will talk about how it segues into "Mediate" and another little bridge into the 90s is born.  However, I cannot mention one band from Australia without mentioning another:

In the whole story of 80s music - which of course is winding down here at TPL - I cannot let The Triffids go by unnoticed.  If I had more time I would talk about them altogether, but at some point I was alerted to them (I think it was an NME cover story on them that was so big it had to be stretched over two issues) and went and bought The Black Swan (the symbol of their hometown of Perth) and lost myself in it,  from the saturated colors on the cover to the vague understanding that this music was practically from the end of the Earth itself.***  Did I feel more grown-up and sophisticated just owning this?  You're damn right I did, and I did crush out a little (hey, I had a lot of catching up to do on that front) on singer-songwriter David McComb, one of the few men I've heard who are audibly handsome.  I think I found a previous album of theirs secondhand somewhere, but this was my favorite, and it is not as far as you'd think from a newish townhouse in a cul-de-sac where very little happened in Oakville to Perth, which I presumed was like Los Angeles but only on a tiny scale, or maybe more like Baltimore...a port city.

A place where sailors pass through, where restlessness sets in pretty early.  So many of the songs are about that fierce restlessness and accompanying lethargy ("Too Hot To Move, Too Hot To Think").  "Falling Over You" is the Triffids doing the Pet Shop Boys and making fun of Dire Straits (I think) at the same time and AAAAAAAAAAAAA is it good.  The first song mentions listening to the Hit Parade, and this album is a hit parade all on its own, from the sweet-and-sour pop of "Goodbye Little Boy" to the country ballad "New Year's Greetings" to the punk rock of "One Mechanic Town" - dammit it is good to hear Stephen Street produce some rock again - and there is a bluntness to McComb's language that evades irony and just goes straight for the physical, the tangible, again and again.  It must have been that restlessness that I picked up on, plus the small-town romanticism that was as fierce as The Smiths, but so so different...  

Oh I want to build a time machine!  I usually say this whenever I am lamenting that a particular artist didn't get to do something he or she was going to do, or to prevent something from happening that had a lasting influence on them.  In McComb's case I would go back to 1986, to somehow stop him from being in a car crash that would mess up his back and cause him so much misery.  (I would somehow make it that I could see The Triffids live, just as I would go back and see The Go-Betweens live.   If they ever did a double bill then oh who can build a time machine for me?)...

...the moods shift and continue, with the relief of "Good Fortune Rose" to the melodramatic "The Clown Prince" (their version of "Tears Of A Clown" by way of Tom Waits); and ends with the lovely but painful "Fairytale Love." Innocence and youth are remembered, idealism too, but where are they now?  "The black swan spread its wings and hissed lo! the night came on" McComb sings, and I am now aware (I wasn't then) that he wrote poetry.**** I also didn't know it at the time, but this was their last studio album; the wear and tear of being critically popular but unloved by the masses exhausted them, which is too bad (echoing what happened with The Go-Betweens, now that I think of it).  Still, who made an album with The Triffids as his band in 1986?  Bill Drummond, that's who - he got to know them as they toured supporting Echo And The Bunnymen.  (Another double bill worthy of a time machine.)       

R.I.P David McComb, 1962-1999.

"The Last Of The Famous International Playboys" - There is a definite being-down-with-the-lads element to Morrissey, and if those lads are criminals, well, what of it?  They dress sharp, they're nice to their mom and other harmless types - "they only kill their own" is the phrase here.  But "Dear hero in prison" leads to the narrator committing crimes so he can be just like his hero, and I somehow sense the worship here is real and not ironic.  He doesn't want to be evil!  But he wants to meet his hero, and day visits to prisons are so passe!  This song works because he means it, and it doesn't hurt that Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke are here, too.  Didn't he eventually meet one of the Krays? 

"Belfast Child" will be discussed in a future entry at TPL, which as you may have guessed already I'm going to write. 

"All She Wants Is" - In which Duran Duran, who actually regained some cool when they worked with Nile Rodgers back in '86, totally lose it with this song, which manages to be worse - or at least as bad - as "Hungry Like The Wolf."  Big Thing may well be an okay album Duranwise, but this song is just so...eeech...complete with a groaning female voice and a stop-start-stop rhythm that reminds me of nothing more than a traffic jam (this is diplomatically described as "aggressive" on wiki).  

Modern Fizz

"Fine Time" - Yazz slooooowwwwwws down here to a near crawl, in order to get across her misery and despair over being left alone.  They were together and she is still in love, but "everybody seems to tell you/that ain't no good for you/You say that I make you feel so blue" and a thousand girls in pubs, wine bars or just drinking at home nod and drink and feel her pain.  Yazz (aka Yasmin Evans) now sings gospel and is much happier than this song, which slinks along, Yazz so quiet there's a desperation behind the gloss.

1989:  The Year That Saved Music

I don't want to write too much about Raw Like Sushi, other than it's something that I listened to a lot at the time as a kind of older-sister-tells-how-it-is album - I mean, how with it is Neneh Cherry?  (And like the others [Wilde and Brown], I didn't know she was Don Cherry's daughter as my father wasn't a Don Cherry fan, so she came to me fresh, as she did for most folks I expect.) The album is vital and moving - after being in bands and working as a backing singer she finally gets her own thing going, which is still so hard for young women in the UK to do.  It could easily be called Love Vs. Money***** as almost every song is about that subject, about love's importance above selfishness and cheap self-regard.  Musically it's kind of dated (these things happen) and the first two songs are the best, which makes listening to the rest of the songs a bit of a letdown.  There will never be a day when "Buffalo Stance" isn't like a ray of sunshine ("harmolodic" she says, signifiying that she comes from jazz, and the zipping and twists and turns in the song are certainly jazz - hey people who think you don't like jazz, you're soaking in it!) and it sums up the whole album pretty well.

But then...

....comes "Manchild" and you can just hear the 90s opening a door gracefully, coming in and sitting down.  The white light illuminating the darkness on the cover of Now 14 may be from a mundane source, but this is something new, something that is shedding light from a divine place, a little scary and yet shamelessly from the heart as well.  Is this the future?  As tremendous as her singing on this song is, and her lyrics and compassion, it is the strings of Wil Malone that make this the stupefying thing that it is.  After that warmth and chill, the rest of the album is just one big recovery room of anger, lust and true love, not to mention motherhood and a strong sense of self-worth and endless honesty.  I was reading Jane Austen for the first time around now******, and while Austen's world is so different from Cherry's, there is that heroic quality to her that Austen's main characters have as well.  Cherry will not settle, and neither do they.       

It is a rare thing for me to feel, but Inner City for me are from Detroit (Kevin Saunderson) and Chicago (Paris Grey) and yet Big Fun (or as it's known in the UK, Paradise) is for me an album from some other dimension that us Earthlings are blessed to have.  I am that in love with it, and it touches me in a way nothing else here can, with few exceptions.  That Paris Grey, like Adeva, came from the church is one thing, but get your mind around this - it's just them.  She sings; he plays his various synths, and that's it.  She is in the front at all times, but the beats, the rhythms, the little noises and notes that appear...when something like this happens, I just have to sit down (or dance) in awe.  Is it house?  Techno?  Is this the spirit of Detroit itself, that indestructible no-matter-what city come to life?  It is all these things, but it is one big reason I got through 1989.  How could I not be cheered up by "Do You Love What You Feel" or sense a much bigger and better world through "Paradise" or "Inner City Theme"?  Or the New Pop "Good Life" with its Occupy London-predicting video?  The light at the end of the tunnel is what's on the cover of Now 14, but this was my light, absolutely, which is why I cannot write about it too much without...not crying...but feeling very moved.  That it all seems so effortless is the simplest way of saying it's a work of art.    

"Hey Music Lover" - How can you tell this is produced by Philip Glass?  Because it's really good and blissfully repetitive. Yes there are samples, hell yes you can dance to it, no there's no narrative, but it has an irresistible energy that is like the Ocean of Sound David Toop goes on about reaching out to you, taking you by the hand and skipping with you down the street.  Higher HIGHER HIGHER!!  Music itself comes out and says hey, it's a new day, y'wanna play? It is indeed wonderful.

"Wild Thing" - In which Tone Loc goes girl crazy, does the wild thing on a kitchen floor (ouch, her mom is there but forgives them - well phew) and ends up with a girl who is "good to go" but expects to get paid.  Oh Tone, are all girls the same to you?  Sexy in a way teenage boys think they're going to get all the ladies, but end up alone as they don't know how to be nonchalant and yet not a jerk.

"Straight Up" - Or, what the US danced to before Rhythm Nation appeared later in the year.  Abdul worked with Jackson, and this is as sharp and fierce as Jackson, without her plush sensuality.  New Jack Swing meets the girl group lyrics and yes, it still makes me dance.  Abdul's a dancer and choreographer first, so it's always on the beat. 

1989:   The Year That Saved Music Part Two

There are plenty of good songs (or at least songs I like) on The Hits Albums 10 - any album that starts with "Eternal Flame," "This Time I Know It's For Real" and "I Beg Your Pardon" by Kon Kan is going to get my attention, but there are three songs that stand out for me here...

"Edelweiss" was done by two Austrians who read The Manual (they actually met up with the KLF who had just finished writing it!) and it's a riot of hip hop aw-yeahs, disco, bitonal yodelling, ABBA being revised and God knows what else.  It starts with actual cow bells and goes into house piano and it's completely insane.  This is what "Doctorin' The Tardis" hath rendered, and the aforementioned Kon Kan are sober rationalists with a love story to tell (Canadian, so it's all very deadpan) in comparison.  The rise of the non-narrative song continues...

Now there are probably going to be some raised eyebrows out there, but may I suggest that the next album here is better than the debut by The Stone Roses?

The reason it's better for me is that this album, full of OMG the-world-is-going-to-end-any minute-now humor and nervousness, was simply a much better match for me as my time at Ryerson was ending.  The Roses seemed to be singing to themselves, but the Poppies (as they were called) seemed to be in a magical place where hip hop and rock actually met just as much as Run-D.M.C.were and it was like a big high-five all around.  "I'm freakin' and you couldn't care less" sings Clint Mansell, and that summed things up for me - I was freaking out about so much, but everyone - my fellow students included - were too busy freaking out themselves to notice.  The Stone Roses couldn't help me out with that, but "Can U Dig It?" and "Not Now James, We're Busy!" and especially the boss "Def Con One" could, and did.  As the Roses have been talked about so much, this album is still ignored, and was only in the charts for a few weeks, in comparison.  But as I understand things, they are back - with Mansell! - and that is good news.

And then there's only the album of the year...

Around this time I was reading not just Jane Austen but something called Classics Revisited by Kenneth Rexroth, a poet who had seemingly read everything and wrote short pieces about everyone from the Greeks and Romans on down.  For him a classic, no matter where it came from, was always surprisingly simple.  They spoke directly across the centuries about how life is, and that is what De La Soul do here.  I think I must have bought this at some point and listened to it constantly.  Why?  Because they were so evidently great that even in my enervated state, they could cheer me up, keep me guessing, and just plain amaze me.  Skits!  A French lesson turned into hip hop!  Suburban surrealism!  The DAISY age was one I truly wished to enter, and in listening and relistening to this album the DAISY******* age (DA Inner Sound, Y'all) came to life again and again.  (Et encore, if you like this album, you like jazz.  You're soaking in it!) There are too many moments and sounds and beats and samples to mention here, in part because this is that (dammit I want a time machine again) time when you could sample anything and get away with it, and this album is proof that with some sensitive ears and fearlessness, you can do something that was fresh in 1989 and will remain fresh for some time to come.  "Me, Myself and I" is what Hits 10 has, but literally everything on here is great and so detailed that you have to listen to it a lot just to absorb it all, just like jazz.  And it's wise, put together really well, and tickles your mind the way it should be tickled - with fun first, and then with the deeper joy that it exists in the first place.     

And so went my spring of tension, iron pills, final exams and making it through the graduation dinner with a sense of the absurd.  The time I longed to be at home and yet elsewhere (not England....clearly that wasn't to be), out of my lethargy and with the purpose and ambition so many people I knew had.  I had no idea about anything, hardly, and had to grieve at home, and look for music to help me regain some sense of self and perspective.  It would be melodramatic to say the music rose up to help me, but music does seem to do that - reach out to meet those who need it.  Or maybe those who need it are more sensitive to it?

That late spring I saw on a dark night, out of my bedroom window, a huge red aurora appear and disappear in a matter of minutes.  The silent whoosh of color was a warning of sorts (red sky at night, etc.) but I felt it meant that yes, there was going to be blood, but blood is life and life in the darkness goes on.  Music encouraged me (along with all my reading and writing) to go on, to continue...

Next up:  Liverpool, once more.     

*I would have been perfectly happy with some salad and macaroni & cheese, really - but vegetarians were barely understood back then.

**A tin roof sundae is vanilla ice cream, hot fudge sauce and lots of peanuts.  Basic, sure, but really good.

***In case you were wondering, I am going to be discussing a certain album from New Zealand in 1990 and will be even more excited by it, and yes the band are from Dunedin.

****There's a book of his poetry called Beautiful Waste and I would love to get a copy, but I don't know if it's available outside of Australia.

***** There is an album by The Dream with this title and it's really good.  

******Believe it or not, I was never taught any Austen books at White Oaks or Ryerson, and thus had to track them down and read them myself, just out of my own interest. 

*******In one of those coincidences that exists just to make me wonder if the Ocean of Sound is a real thing, the first name the Triffids had back when McComb & Co. were in high school was Daisy.  The Daisy age is reborn!