Tuesday 8 September 2015

Phil COLLINS: ...But Seriously

(#402: 2 December 1989, 8 weeks; 3 February 1990, 7 weeks)

Track listing: Hang In Long Enough/That’s Just The Way It Is/Do You Remember?/Something Happened On The Way To Heaven/Colours/I Wish It Would Rain Down/Another Day In Paradise/Heat On The Street/All Of My Life/Saturday Night And Sunday Morning/Father To Son/Find A Way To My Heart

Readers! It’s the end of the eighties! What a rip-roaring rollercoaster ride it’s been! But do you feel lost and confused at the end of it all? Worried about where it’s all going? Worry no longer, for Phil Collins is here with all the answers, like Bob the Builder but with drums! The Troubles? Why, here’s a song so vague and ill-defined you’d never know it was about the Troubles without looking it up on Wikipedia, or at least looking at the lyric sheet – but the drumming rock legend definitely shows those Bruce Hornsby and the Range who’s protest boss! Apartheid? Let Uncle Phil tell you what’s what by singing a song and then halfway through turning it into a 1986 It Bites B-side! Urban unrest from Beijing to Berlin? Allow Collins of Chiswick to set you right with an anthem which is clearly the best of its kind since Jimmy James and the Vagabonds’ unforgettable “Now Is The Time”! Cat Stevens fans will enjoy the touching “Father To Son,” a touching ballad which puts Bill Fay’s “Some Good Advice” in its place! And if that weren’t enough, there’s the scintillating international hit single “Another Day In Paradise,” an analysis of society’s dispossessed which is only slightly less acute than “Lonely Pup (In A Christmas Shop)”! Phil tops it all off with an avalanche of ballads moaning about his love life, or its absence, just to remind us all what really matters in this world! You’ll be humming these songs well into the twenty-first century…but seriously!

* * * * * *

We can’t leave the eighties like this, can we? Not with another of these increasingly anodyne solo albums, even if it were 1989’s third best-selling album and 1990’s best-selling album bar none. At the other end of the decade Face Value was still prioritising Collins the art-rocker but now he could be preaching anything, and still you wouldn’t be able to tell because everything has melted into a beige sonic middleground. The usual reliables are here, as well as some mildly exotic guests; all I can say is that I wish Stephen Bishop had sung lead on “Do You Remember?” and “Paradise” is only made bearable by listening out for David Crosby’s harmonies. Clapton pops up and does his best to make “I Wish It Would Rain Down” interesting. There’s an instrumental which sounds like the theme tune to a failed Channel 4 comedy game show pilot, and a closing ballad which could have soundtracked the end credits of a film – a bad one, as Eric Morecambe would have remarked.

I think that after all the work Lena and I have put into analysing the music of this decade, the eighties deserve a much better send-off. We therefore offer this package, which probably would have finished second to Collins, as it did on the equivalent NME chart (which was at this point still incorporating compilation albums), but still offers a much better picture of where this has all been and where it is all going. No, I don’t mean Jive Bunny – The Album (and Collins does have his uses; if it hadn’t been for …But Seriously, we’d have had to finish with that musical masterpiece)!

Image result for now 16

The observant reader will have noticed that this is the first Now compilation not to include any number one singles, as opposed to the three number ones which appeared on the contemporaneous Monster Hits (a.k.a. Hits 11), including the year’s biggest seller, “Ride On Time.” But rebranding disasters meant that Now prevailed, and while one really needs the other to make complete sense – throw in Telstar’s The Greatest Hits Of 1989 while you’re at it – Now 16 nevertheless offers us a fascinating snapshot of the state of pop at the close of an era. To remind ourselves that we are dealing with thirty-five singles, I will endeavour to sum up each of them as succinctly as possible:

Tears For Fears – Sowing The Seeds Of Love
Last time I forgot to mention DJ Shadow and “Midnight In A Perfect World” wherein this song found its perfect home. An assiduous artist patiently assembling and dissecting lots of records in an endeavour to create something new. Much like Then Play Long.

Belinda Carlisle – Leave A Light On
Fly the flag! Many of Belinda’s hits make me think of a crowd by the quay, ready to wave the gunboats off.

Erasure – Drama!
Grows on me with every listen. Unarguably more on the case than “Personal Jesus.” Who’d have guessed Vince would have ended up the hipper one?

Deborah Harry – I Want That Man
She works hard for the money, while writers/producers The Thompson Twins prove that, despite all expectations, they’re still alive. “Here comes the twenty-first century!” – but not for a while yet, and Blondie will stage a major comeback before it happens.

Sydney Youngblood – If Only I Could
What an odd story, what a strange, dislocated record. San Antonio GI gets sent to Germany, stays there and has his moment with a melange which defies borders and timescales – House (“Break 4 Love”), SAW (Youngblood sounds like an older, wiser and deeper Rick Astley), Northern Soul (those vibes) and Balearic (the plucked acoustic guitar), all fused in a mythical we’ve-got-to-have-peace Sixties with a bizarre and seemingly random fadeout. Another song which I wish Elvis had lived to sing.

Curiosity Killed The Cat – Name And Number
More interesting and generous than I had remembered, the song which De La Soul sampled a year later on an album that didn’t do as well as it should have because of the removal of all of its uncleared samples.

The Beautiful South – You Keep It All In
Perky little 1974 toe-tapper about domestic violence to the point of psychosis.

Wet Wet Wet – Sweet Surrender
There’ll be no Jacob’s Cream Crackers in this East Kilbride supper club.

Queen – Breakthru’
The boys of their last summer, riding on a train.

Tina Turner – The Best
Seriously, who goes up to a lover or addresses an audience and says that s/he/they is/are “the best”? On the other hand, this is the only song here to include an “eighties saxophone solo.”

Transvision Vamp – Born To Be Sold
She worked hard for no money.

Wendy and Lisa – Waterfall ‘89
Released in 1987 and remixed in ’89 and Britain didn’t want to know either time. A pity because this is a sharper Belinda Carlisle colliding with a Stevie Nicks who’s just emerged from her dazed sundown.

Kate Bush – The Sensual World
Davy Spillane and Bill Whelan and still, oh what?

Fine Young Cannibals – I’m Not The Man I Used To Be
“Funky Drummer Apocalypse (Prequel).”

Then Jerico – Sugar Box
Cheekbones. The cheek of it.

Living In A Box – Room In Your Heart
Richard Darbyshire howls his best but he’s no Bobby Womack; less “If You Don’t Want My Love” than Jigsaw’s “If I Have To Go Away.”

Richard Marx – Right Here Waiting
Ian van Tuyl’s book Popstrology covers a period of exactly thirty-three-and-a-third years of American number ones, starting with “Heartbreak Hotel” and arguing that the rock ‘n’ roll era as such came to an end with “Right Here Waiting.” Like many songs on this record, it bears the feeling that something big is coming to an end, but also suggests the wider and probably true subtext that in the end, rock ‘n’ roll was nothing more than a brief, decadent irruption in the history of the Victorian parlour song.

Milli Vanilli – Girl I’m Gonna Miss You
The duo see their own end looming and approach it with nonchalant melancholy; “It’s a tragedy for me to see the dream is over.” It’s like the cortege patiently bearing the coffin of pop, or the notion that it could have meant something more than aren’t things tickety-boo and my, aren’t we super(heroes)? “When you had a taste of paradise/The cold earth can feel as cold as ice” as an envoi to those of us about to be left behind.

Rebel MC & Double Trouble – Street Tuff
“London Pride has been handed down to us, London Pride is a flower that's free.” Islington, and “54-46 That’s My Number,” in case you were wondering.

Bobby Brown – On Our Own
“Well I guess we're gonna have to take control”; a vile and despicable man, responsible for 1989’s best-selling non-number one album, lays out his game plan. Ghostbusters 2? He lives with nothing but ghosts now.

Technotronic ft Felly – Pump Up The Jam
If Germany could do it with Raze, so could Belgium with Marshall Jefferson. Tip top dance bubblegum that you couldn’t write in a million years to save your lives, you doughnuts.

Lil’ Louis – French Kiss
The pump of your jam can go down as well as up.

Adeva – I Thank You
Take me to church.

D Mob ft Cathy Dennis – C’mon And Get My Love
Future world hit songwriter flies into rave like a cartoon parachute. It’s the Chad Valley two-dimensionalism of late eighties UK dance music that makes it so attractive.

Inner City – Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin’
Complicated first Inner City album history: in Britain it was called Paradise and didn’t have this song on it, but in the States it was called Big Fun and this song replaced the peerless “Power Of Passion” (a moment in love). Terrific to see it back here; a cover of a 1979 Stephanie Mills song, written by Reggie Lucas and James Mtume – both of whom appeared on Miles’ Agharta and Pangaea – Paris and Kevin take the song slowly and elegantly upwards until the singer’s voice peaks and echoes out over the purple skies like twelve unleashed seagulls of silver.

Big Fun – Can’t Shake The Feeling
The gradual altering and thickening of their textures suggest that Stock, Aitken and Waterman knew it was time to move on. “Can’t Shake The Feeling” was nearly their last big dice throw, and the song’s residual harmonic sadness and the medium-pitched, slightly nasal but stentorian no-argument ensemble singing actually highlight a road into the nineties; this is setting the stage for Take That.

Cliff Richard – I Just Don’t Have The Heart
It’s like the end of The Wizard Of Oz, isn’t it, said Lena, when they pull back the curtains and it’s just this little, unassuming man running everything? Cliff fancied having a dance hit and sent for SAW who provided him with his last non-Christmas/non-Thank You For This Splendid Retirement Gold Watch hit that anybody really remembers. He does pretty well with it, too, including providing his own backing (and warm-up!) vocals. But everything seems to lead back to him, and what conclusion can we draw from that, except that, once again, this is a song about something ending?

Jimmy Somerville ft June Miles-Kingston – Comment Te Dire Adieu?
It’s like the end of Sunday Night At The Eighties Palladium, isn’t it, when all the decade’s stars regroup on the revolving platform and wave farewell. Jimmy, in his last Then Play Long appearance, and in collaboration with a former Mo-Dette, reminds us that Serge Gainsbourg (who provided French lyrics to a song which had been written in the forties) and Acid House are natural bedfellows.

The name of the original song? “It Hurts To Say Goodbye.”

Brother Beyond – Drive On
Shakespear’s Sister – You’re History
Two ways of dealing with life after SAW. Unfortunately, when it came to their second album, Brother Beyond thought they could do it themselves and it was easy but found that neither was true. “Drive On” actually dissolves as a song while you’re listening to it.

Whereas “You’re History” addresses a broader canvas. Siobhan’s is the dominant voice – but didn’t we hear that other woman sometime in the seventies? – but the song is not really a rejoinder to We Too Are One; it is her gleefully looking back at her pop life and dismembering it. Or maybe it is more – “You’re History” is saying bye-bye and piss off to the eighties.

Oh Well – Oh Well

I don’t think the people responsible for “Oh Well” ever read The Manual, although Bill Drummond has written about encountering Peter Green on a flight from Germany. Nevertheless it is quite a fabulous idea, reducing Green’s soul-searching to a staccato rap and recasting the riff as a Euro rave-up – they’d rather jack and Fleetwood Mac - not forgetting that the original came from the album which helped give Then Play Long its name.

Debbie Harry, Cliff Richard, Siobhan Fahey, Jimmy Somerville, Tina Turner, Fleetwood Mac – it really is as though they’ve all come back to say goodbye, isn’t it?

Neneh Cherry – Kisses On The Wind

Third-single-off-the-album syndrome, but a nice Latino update of “Penthouse And Pavement.”

Redhead Kingpin and The F.B.I. – Do The Right Thing

Written for the movie but not used in it – unlike “Fight The Power,” possibly the decade’s greatest single – this jacks along quite swimmingly on the back of ESG’s venerable “U.F.O.” sample, although you can tell they’re New Yorkers as they namecheck all the boroughs while leaving one shoutout apiece for the West Coast and the rest of the world. Also features what could almost be an accordion solo.

* *

There is but one song remaining, the song with which we propose to take out this lengthy examination of the eighties. All of a sudden the lights fall dead, and we are faced with the darkness of the unknown. The past dies so that the future can live.

And yet to understand it, we need to go back to where it all began.

Fresh 4 featuring Lizz-E – Wishing On A Star

Specifically, let us go back to what I wrote about the song near the beginning of this near three-year long odyssey:

“…there had been “Wishing On A Star,” with oboe and strings doing their best to hold [Gwen] Dickey back from collapse, although the song seems more of a lament for times gone than a love forlorn – “I wish on all the people we might have been,” Dickey sings near the beginning, later on amending it to the more sinisterly poignant “…all the people we’ll never be.” At another point – it’s part of what is not quite a chorus – she sings, virtually in one breath, “Make the best of things oh baby when we’re together/Whether or never.” In other words, even if she got back what she was wishing for, it still wouldn’t be great. And whether or never what, exactly? The song’s arrangement emphasises the near-schizophrenic indecision at work here, seesawing between ascending Moog bubbles and put-back-in-their-place string balladry, never to be resolved, not even in the long fade, when Dickey quietly explodes. With both of these songs – the 1989 Fresh 4 cover of “Wishing” especially on my mind – there is a certain determined stealthiness which puts me in mind of Massive Attack; the very pronounced basslines, the crepuscular creeps.”

And now we are faced with the record which stayed at the back of my mind all the time, a record which sounds like nothing else that made the charts in the eighties, and like so many things that would make the charts in the nineties. The song only exists in terms of Lizz-E’s faltering vocal, which put Lena in mind of Elizabeth Fraser – those dots will be joined in the fullness of time – but which made me think of the fragile voices typical of another Bristol enterprise, Sarah Records.

What happens behind her vocal – which is delivered flatly, sometimes absentmindedly, as though singing it to herself quietly in the photocopier room or on the night bus – is something we haven’t heard before, or at least not in this context; bitonal electric piano phrases in direct conflict with the vocal line, or which amplify and transport the voice into places it might not hitherto have imagined (this really wouldn't have been out of place on either Agharta or Pangaea), and a firm, stentorian “Funky Drummer” breakbeat. It sounds threatening, possibly even bloody – a rapper briefly turns up towards the end of the song and murmurs something about being like “a lamb to the slaughter” – and entirely disorientating and unsettling.

For this record came out of Bristol, produced by Smith and Mighty (those who heeded their 1987 take on “Walk On By” were readily prepared), and performed, like a shebeen karaoke session, by a group whose members included a very young Krust, later of Roni Size and Reprazent, later still of the very fine album Coded Language, DJ Suv (who co-founded the Full Cycle crew with Krust and Size) and Flynn, later half of Flynn and Flora. In other words, the foundations of at least one strain of jungle, later drum n’ bass, appear here.

But of course the overwhelming feeling listening to the record now is that it sets the stage for Massive Attack and trip hop, and it seems, more decisively than other contenders for last song on an ideal eighties mixtape (“Getting Away With It”?), to close the door most firmly on the decade that it is leaving behind, and open the door to the decade that is to come. It does not sound like an eighties record; indeed it reaches out to the seventies and swoops straight into the nineties as though the intervening decade never happened, or was merely an irrelevance. It is the perfect record to soundtrack Then Play Long’s departure from the eighties; those with open ears and minds are invited to join us as we wrap up to protect ourselves against the initial cold and walk into the nineties.

“I wish on all the people we might have been
And I wish on all the people we’ll never be.”

“Where have they been?
Where have they been?
Where have they been?
Where have they…been?”