Sunday, 25 January 2009

1980 St Winifred's School Choir: There's No-one Quite Like Grandma

Ah, the broadest of all barn door targets; volumes and tomes could be filled with the outpouring of bile and hatred vomited in the direction of this song over the years, but I'm afraid I'm not inclined to add to it. How could I? Only the most calcified of hearts could take aim and offence at a troupe of primary school children whose only sin is to love their Grandma. And at Christmas time too (a similar sentimental seasonal bullseye had already been scored by Clive Dunn in 1971 with his 'Grandad').

If this was sung at the school Christmas concert then it would have brought the roof down; is it the fault of the kids that they were ushered into a recording studio and made to commit to vinyl what should have been a transitionary moment between them, their parents and their parent's parents? Is it the fault of the kids that the resulting effort was given a full commercial release and let loose into the national charts where it kicked John Lennon off the Christmas number one spot? No and no. And that's kind of my point - this sort of thing works perfectly well when kept in the family dynamic; just as holiday snaps or baby photos bring hours of delight to parents and close relatives, they bore the pants off the rest of us when the 'golden moments' are shared wider. No, if you want to blame anybody for this, then blame the writer, Gordon Lorenz who saw the chance to make a quick buck from a cute, gap toothed girl and her mates, and then blame the one million slack jawed, sentimentally overdosed punters who fell for it and, in confusing treacly sentimentailty with festive spirit, were only too happy to make him rich by buying it. A plague on all their houses.

1980 John Lennon: (Just Like) Starting Over

The very title of '(Just Like) Starting Over' is apt and ironic in equal measure. Apt, because this was Lennon's comeback single after five years in the wilderness and would also mark a stabilisation within his personal life, a kiss off to the drink and drug fuelled lost weekends of old and a public acknowledgement of a new commitment to his wife Yoko Ono after a period of semi retirement in which they raised their son. "It's been too long since we took the time no-one's to blame, I know time flies so quickly. But when I see you darling, it's like we both are falling in love again" - the autobiography is obvious and Lennon once remarked that his five year recording hiatus was largely due to the fact he no longer found music interesting. 

If that truly was the case, then the artist seems to be in no mood to break any new ground on his own behalf - musically, '(Just Like) Starting Over' harked back to earlier days of Fifties rock and roll and doo wop, the upshot being that there's nothing remotely controversial or confrontational about it and was a letdown to those who expected a major statement of intent from the angry and angsty young man they knew of old, if only just to stick two fingers up at the bland contemporary fayre McCartney was churning out. The disappointment and 'ho hum' factor is neatly underlined by the fact '(Just Like) Starting Over' only managed to reach number eight on first release in October 1980 and was outside the top 20 when Lennon was shot in December, events which inevitably powered it to the top of the charts.

To be fair, though '(Just Like) Starting Over'
is not the music Lennon will be remembered for in ten, twenty or a hundred years time, it is the sound of a man comfortable in his own clothes and at ease with his own legend. As a diversion, it's more than passable, but whether the subdued and retrospective middle aged tone of this and the whole of the parent 'Double Fantasy' album would be a signpost to any future music, or whether it was Lennon dipping his toes back in the water to build confidence again by doing what he knew best we will never know. And in that factor alone, the title of '(Just Like) Starting Over' carries a bitter irony in that a start was all that Lennon was allowed to achieve in this stage of his career.

Friday, 23 January 2009

1980 Abba: Super Trouper

Probably the only song set in Glasgow and about a concert spotlight that ever has or ever will be written, 'Super Trouper' was a continuation of the cold war of disatisfaction within Abba's ranks. Instead of the internal relationship conflicts of 'The Winner Takes It All', 'Super Trouper' details the group's dislike of the treadmill of touring and playing live, prefering by this stage to confine their activities to the studio; "I was sick and tired of everything when I called you last night from Glasgow. All I do is eat and sleep and sing, wishing every show was the last show": Biting the hand that feeds rarely makes for a good song, but rather than a bitter dirge of whiny self pity, Abba dress the song up all shiny with a chorus the lights the gloom very much in the manner of the titular spotlight. Anna Frid may sound like she's singing the lines "Shining like the sun. Smiling, having fun" through very gritted teeth, and I suppose she really is, but it doesn't detract from the Europop bounce and we can all smile at the nonsense of the 'sup-p-per troup-p-per' counterpoint refrain from the men, even if nobody else in the band is.

And therein lies the problem - just what are you meant to feel once the song is over? 'Super Trouper' is a mix of grown up angst and feel good flair that flits uneasily from both between verse and chorus, verse and chorus, making it a schizophrenic listen that's hard to sing along to and even harder to empathise with. In hindsight, the duality marked the watershed in the band's fortunes; it was their last UK number one and was the moment where Abba left the party for good and went to sit on the stairs on their own.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

1980 Blondie: The Tide Is High

Blondie were never averse to releasing cover versions as singles ('Denis', 'Hanging On The Telephone') and their third number one of the year was a straight ahead version of this John Holt rocksteady tune originally recorded in 1967 by The Paragons. There are essentially two problems with this. 

Firstly, the original song was written from a male point of view; "Every man wants you to be his girl, but I'll wait, my dear, 'till it's my turn" - Blondie necessarily swap the gender, but would the Debbie Harry we all knew and loved show such vulnerability by passively waiting in line for the man of her dreams? Or would she, red in temper and nailpolish, pounce and dispatch the competition by any means necessary? And what competition could she possible have? From day one, Harry came across as feisty and independent with a 'look but don't touch' aura that was defiantly not girl next door so to see her neutered like this is a bit of a disappointment.

Secondly, and as noted above, 'The Tide Is High' was originally a John Holt rocksteady track, and there is something rather incongruous about five white New York blokes in skinny ties playing rocksteady behind a blonde white woman singing it. Admittedly, the strings and horns add a certain je ne sais quoi to the mix, but they are not enough to hide the fact that this version simply doesn't groove; in the hands of The Paragons, the slow backbeat and holes in the bassline were there to be filled with the rhythmic body motion on the dancefloor which itself became part of the music. Here, the flow is jerky, showing it's 'new wave' origins and the overall impression is of something created and dubbed note by note in a studio, something that was never once played through as a single piece of music by a band together in the same room.
Blondie would again venture into black culture with their next (and far more interesting) single 'Rapture', but from three in a year it would be nigh on twenty more until their next number one. In 1980 'The Tide Is High' was the sound of a friendly beach party though the briefest of glimpses below the surface showed that rather than walking confidently on the water, the band were furiously treading it.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

1980 Barbra Streisand: Woman In Love

Being a kind of latter day Judy Garland, Streisand had made her fame and fortune from Broadway musicals long before the Bee Gees, with their stock at an all time high, were approached with a view to collaborate. The resulting album was 'Guilty' and 'Woman In Love' was the lead single, her one and only UK number one to date. Rather than the full on disco strut of 'Tragedy' or 'Stayin Alive' though, the brothers Gibb stick firmly to the middle of the road with this one and play the whole thing out in a minor key with some earthereal guitar and backing strings and a lack of drums to let you know that the only dancing you're meant to be doing to this is the slow one at the end of the night. Which is a bit of a shame really because if you're not dancing then you may end up listening to the lyrics, and they don't bear close scrutiny.

"Life is a moment in space
, when the dream is gone it's a lonelier place. I kiss the morning goodbye, but down inside you know we never know why": I have no idea what that means and  I doubt Streisand does either, but she she's as good as her word and gives it her all, using her (admittedly magnificent) voice from the heart to spin this straw into an approximation of gold. And in the course of her spinning, Streisand is too much of a showgirl not to know that when all else fails, hitting and maintaining a high note (as she does on the 'I give you it all' line) for over ten seconds is the quality kitemark that's all the average listener needs to hear to know that she really means it and that there's some serious heartbreak going down along with the curtain (just ask Whitney or Maria; they should know, they've built whole careers on this simple con trick). You can almost picture the tearfully jilted, unrequited and lovelorn with running mascara and an overfilled wineglass, gripping it's stem so tightly it breaks as she does it. Amateur dramatics maybe, but effective nonetheless. 'Woman In Love' is a professional job from first to last. And yet for all it's professionalism, it lacks the emotional substance that it so obviously aspires to, making listening to it akin to eating a whole box of chocolates in one sitting; enjoyable enough at the time, but ultimately resulting in little more than a sickly feeling in the stomach and a self questioning 'now what was the point of that?' shortly afterwards. I can't say that it's my cup of tea, but in terms of each of the participants it does nobody's careers any harm at all.

Monday, 19 January 2009

1980 The Police: Don't Stand So Close To Me

Well first things first - I think the 'problem' with any discussion of 'Don't Stand' is that there's an elephant in the room. You know what I mean, what lazy journalists refer to as that lyric. So let's get it out of the way: "Its no use, he sees her, he starts to shake and cough, just like the old man in that book by Nabakov" - a clumsy rhyme for sure, but in the context of the song's subject matter (teacher having indecent thoughts about a jailbait pupil with a crush on him) it works well enough; I can just imagine a member of academia trying to find justification for his longings in literature where none exists in morality (the book is 'Lolita' in case anyone didn't know). It's certainly not the biggest stick with which this song can be beaten. 

By 1980, The Police had achieved an extraordinary run of success and were on a roll, but the toll of releasing two albums in the previous twelve months was biting and 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' is the sound of a formula being stretched transparent. Structurally, 'Don't Stand' is basically a slowed down and spaced out re-run of their earlier 'Can't Stand Losing You' that swaps Andy Summer's choppy guitar skank for a more straightforward delivery, rather like a once sharp knife with the edge dulled. To compound this, Sting delivers the verses with an attitude of detached, almost embarrassed disinterest, as if he realises he's on dodgy ground with his tale of schoolgirl jailbait and can't wait to rush past it and on to the chorus (introduced by Copeland's kick drum that acts as a full stop to all the nonsense that has gone before) which he knows will sell the song to anybody with a ear for a catchy tune.

In the end,
'Don't Stand' is a classic 'eighties' song - it may lack all the bombast of the later bands and songs of the decade, but it's still basic pop dressed in a grown up's clothes to create an air of gravitas and importance that is never fulfilled. We never know the outcome of the scenario that unfolds and what the teacher does when he stops coughing and shaking. Maybe Sting knows but thought it was a step too far to describe. And maybe the imagined is worse than the knowing. But nevermind; the chorus soon kicks in to fade so nobody worries about it too much and everybody's happy.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

1980 Kelly Marie: Feels Like I'm In Love

From the streets and clubs of New York, disco spread it's influence as far and wide as Paisley, Scotland, where Jacqueline McKinnon heeded the trumpet call, changed her name to Kelly Marie, (but not bothering to hide one chip of her hard as granite Scots accent) and hit number one with this Ray Dorset (of Mungo Jerry fame) track that was originally intended for Elvis Presley. I'm not certain what sort of fist Mr Presley would have made of it, but I don't think it could have been too much worse than this.

Dance music is often derided as being machine made by and robotic in structure. There are plenty of examples that disprove this overly simplistic and one eyed viewpoint, but in 'Feels Like I'm In Love', the prosecution has it's key witness. The jury will observe that from the opening bars, the whole thing chugs along like a horse drawn cart with an offset wheel that ensures any smooth ride is going to be broken at regular intervals along the way.
Let the jury further note that although dance music is meant to be liberating in both mind and body, the only 'dance' that can be realistically 'done' to this is to either march up and down on the spot, or to mime pulling an imaginary rope in time to the music. It works best too if your back is kept ramrod straight. The more adventurous may do both together, but any attempts at moving the hips, head or shoulders will soon see you all at sea. Just keep in mind a fixed robotic arm spot welding car frames on a production line and you'll not go far wrong.

The only concession to this is that you may mime pushing an imaginary button or throwing an imaginary switch whenever the 'boop boops' arrive - and don't worry, they're well telegraphed by the lyrics which Ms Marie shrieks out in a thick Caledonian squall that is more pint pot than cut glass. Filming the video on a battleship harboured off the North Sea with two men dressed as sailors may have been a cynical attempt to catch the gay ear, but it did nothing to hide the illusion that this was a cheap as chips own brand Corn Flakes. You had to go elsewhere for the Kellogg's because Kelly sure as hell wasn't selling it.

Friday, 16 January 2009

1980 The Jam: Start!

Paul Weller has never been a man afraid to proudly wear his influences on his sleeve; Motown, Stax, Small Faces, Beatles et al - all have found their way into his output. Influence, though, is one thing - Weller not previously been so blatant as to steal the core from another song for his own. And not just any song; the signature bass and guitar riff for 'Start!' was lifted virtually note for note from The Beatles' 'Taxman'.*  But as if to evidence TS Eliot's "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different" quote, 'Start!' is more than a cheap knock off.

Where The Beatles' own riff resolves itself into a tension relieving chorus, Weller's song makes do with a simple change of key to mark the passage of each verse. There's no chorus to speak of, save the repeated refrain of 'And what you give is what you get'. 'Start!' is the sound of an angry man (once again), but it's a different kind of anger to that of previous and directed more inward than the world at large. "If we communicate for two minutes only it will be enough. For knowing that someone in this world feels as desperate as me"; success and the weight of expectation was by now weighing heavy on shoulders just 22 years old, along with the growing frustration of the limitations inherent in continuing to make music within the parameters of tje 'power trio' of The Jam. 'Start!' sounds more like a fragment of a good idea rather than a complete song. It runs for a shade over two and a half minutes, but rather than being the perfect short, sharp shock of 'Going Underground', 'Start!' could easily meander on for twice it's released length with little detriment, or the original song could have been a minute long but spliced together in the middle to bring it up to standard single length. Experimental it may be (experimental for The Jam in any case), but when 'the experiment' seems to be simply to confuse people by making something that doesn't sound like The Jam, but being too lazy to come up with something truly original, then it must be counted as a failure in the final reckoning. And I bet the fact it got to number one wound Weller up all the more.

* Which is the opening track on 'Revolver', an album Weller stated in 2015 (to The Quietus) as being one of his all time favourites.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

1980 David Bowie: Ashes To Ashes

Regardless of how era defining (which it is) and achingly 'eighties' the video to this track remains (with Blitz Kids 'faces' of Steve Strange and pals tarted up like dog's dinners and Bowie himself no shrinking violet in a pierrot outfit), it's quite startling twenty eight years hence to appreciate just how un-eighties  'Ashes To Ashes' itself sounds. In fact, it barely sounds earthbound at all; as a song it could be broadcasting from a radio on whatever planet Major Tom ended up on, not least because 'Ashes To Ashes' is a sequel of sorts to Bowie's own 1975 number one 'Space Oddity'. This time round though, the 'space' metaphor of a 2001 sensory drug rush, soundtracked by the warm strings and oozing basslines of the former track is replaced by the psychotic ramblings of a burned out junkie "strung out in heaven's high, hitting an all-time low", surrounded by a vacuum packed mental isolation.

Produced by Bowie himself and former collaborator Tony Visconti, it's clear from the get go that somebody had been paying close attention to what Brian Eno had been up to on the previous three Bowie albums. Striking too how, in form, 'Ashes To Ashes' evolved from the same petri dish that  Eno and Talking Heads' would produce a year later (on 'Remain In Light') and the family resemblance between 'Ashes' and the wide eyed paranoia of 'Once In A Lifetime'. Incestuous in tone maybe, but in structure it's nowhere close; in stark contrast to the solid foundation of African polyrhythms that underpin Talking Heads' work of this period, 'Ashes' barely has a containing structure to support it. Rather, it sounds like a roomful of computers were plugged in left to generate a series of random pings and squelches to infinity, and the moment they chimed in unison and produced something resembling a tune for a few seconds it was recorded and looped for Bowie to sing over.

Though just as it isn't exactly music, Bowie isn't always exactly singing. At times, he distorts his voice to reach for highs and lows he has no chance of hitting, and at other times he's just plain shouting (either at us the listener or to himself:"I've never done good things, I've never done bad things, I never did anything out of the blue"). And if it isn't exactly singing, then the lyrics aren't exactly lyrics either; Bowie had long since dabbled with Burroughs' cut-up technique that doesn't readily lend itself to creating a strong narrative, but the random confusion of tortured imagery that haunts the song is too consistent; it shows none of the cracks of light you'd expect from a truly random ordering of words, suggesting that the source material did not come from anywhere that was good. Major Tom was clearly not in a happy place in 1980. For many (and I'll include myself here), 'Ashes To Ashes' was Bowie's last credible throw of the creative dice before self aware implosion saw him trying to get to grips with the current pack instead of leading it. Though it seemed to bode well for a decade as interesting as his previous had been, the horrors that were to come showed that it wasn't just Major Tom who could drift into very bad places.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

1980 Abba: The Winner Takes It All

What The Beatles were to the sixties, so ABBA were to the seventies - that is, an unstoppable cultural force and ever producing hit machine that defined their decade in sound and image to the point that it's impossible to think of one without the other. The Beatles split as the seventies began, but ABBA remained relevant for the opening years of the new decade, though a definite chill had settled over their output. The playfulness of 'Dancing Queen' and 'Money Money Money' were a fading memory; reality had intruded into their art, and though they may have been all smiles on the cover, relations within the band had fractured and the emotional damage spilled out into most of their music from here on in. The Hawaiian shirts on the sleeve suggested a hot summer, but there's precious little warmth in 'The Winner Takes It All'.

In simple terms, the song charts a relationship breakdown, firstly  from an earthbound perspective (
"I don't wanna talk" confesses Anna-Frid, who then never shuts up for the entire song, "About the things we've gone through. Though its hurting me, now its history") to the ultimately cosmic viewpoint of the singer, (in this case, Agnetha and her "The gods may throw a dice, their minds as cold as ice. And someone way down here loses someone dear"). Though initially couched in terms of resignation, the lyrics point no the finger of blame; rather, the situation is framed in terms of playing the game of love by the accepted rules of behaviour but then being trumped by higher forces of destiny beyond control before ending by confronting her ex lover with almost a sporting handshake that acknowledges a game well played and a game well won.  "The winner takes it all, the loser has to fall. Its simple and its plain. Why should I complain" - I simply cannot believe that Benny and Bjorn did not have their earlier 'The Name Of The Game' in mind when composing this: "What's the name of the game? Does it mean anything to you? What's the name of the game? Can you feel it the way I do?" 'The Winner Takes It All' can be seen as its sequel of sorts to this track, the flipside or outcome of the wide eyed girl asking about love and learning the hard way that rules are there to be broken, though lyrics aren't the whole story here.

'The Winner Takes It All' opens with a simple piano motif backed by Agnetha and Anni-Frid's voices multitracked into celestial harmonies before building, ever building when the instruments add to the crescendo as the song progresses, speeding up like a quickening heartbeat and the despair in Agnetha's voice increases. Each chorus is sung with just that little bit more force and conviction than the previous as she tries to convince herself that her destiny is helplessly in the hands of superior forces, then trying to appeal to her lover's senses by raking over the ashes ("But tell me does she kiss like I used to kiss you? Does it feel the same when she calls your name?") before realising in the final reckoning that this is scant consolation for the hurt currently felt and the nagging doubt that maybe she herself is to blame: "I apologise if it makes you feel bad. Seeing me so tense, no self-confidence" - Agnetha stumbles over the 'con-fi-dence' in three distinct syllables of broken self pity that always make my spine tingle as we conclude by returning to the resigned quiet that opened it almost five minutes previous. Yes, 'The Winner Takes It All' runs for 4 minutes 54 seconds and charts a range of emotions that many novelists would have taken 100 pages to describe. 'Mamma Mia' (the musical) says considerably less in almost two hours. It's the same band, but 'The Winner Takes It All' is about as far from 'Dancing Queen' as you can get. Majestic, mature, heartbreaking, searingly honest and utterly superb - their greatest number one. By some margin.

Monday, 12 January 2009

1980 Odyssey: Use It Up And Wear It Out

Musically, New York City was an interesting place to be in the early eighties. Disco still flexed its muscles in the clubs, but the more savvy and streetwise were down with the ever popular Nu Yorican Latin and Caribbean salsa grooves, as well as the newly growing and influential hip hop scene. Like London in the sixties, it was a melting pot of new styles and new sounds where innovators like Afrika Bambaataa could sample Kraftwerk and create a hybrid that was totally fresh.

Magpie like, “Use It Up And Wear It Out” borrowed heavily from each of these genres - a tight but loose rhythm meanders over a spare backing of bells and whistles that, although restless, never loses focus. And how could it when that chorus kicked in and brought every back to their senses as to what they were meant to be doing in listening to it:
"Gonna Use it up - wear it out. Ain't nothin' left in this whole world I care about. I said one two three shake your body down". It's a hook so strong the band could almost let the song peter out to virtual silence save a few whistles, safe in the knowledge that the underlying beat was a steady pulsebeat that would keep the song alive indefinitely. No message, no politics and no agenda; all the band were saying was just get out there and move to the music. 

Because of it's wide range of influences, “Use It Up And Wear It Out” has broad appeal - it was (and still is) guaranteed to fill any disco floor from Studio 54 to the school gym (I can vouch for the latter from personal experience), while the more serious minded could stand at the sides and smugly identify where each of the pick and mix components came from. Clever yet accessible, intricate yet simple, it went some way to belying the claim that disco was disposable rubbish - maybe some of it was, but not this one.

1980 Olivia Newton John and ELO: Xanadu

Contemporaneously promoted as the natural successor to 'Grease', Xanadu (the film) saw Olivia Newton John playing a kind of Greek (via Melbourne), roller skating muse who inspires the owner of a new nightclub (the titular 'Xanadu') where Jeff Lynne's Electric Light Orchestra were the house band. Some three decades later, it still doesn't make a barrel of sense when written down like that, which may have had something to do with why the whole enterprise was viciously slated by the critics and ultimately  bombed at the box office. The title track though did manage to get to number one, and it's the one thing that immediately springs to mind whenever this whole doomed project is mentioned.

It starts off well enough - Olivia's yell of 'A PLACE!' remains a cry of pure exhilaration, the sound of someone kicking open the door to ecstasy with the promise of good times ahead. Unfortunately, the band behind her don't follow her through it; ELO are hardly a name that springs to mind when considering a roll call of outfits with disco chops,  and if Liv is the violently beautiful, completely unobtainable sixth form girl dancing unselfconsciously alone at the school disco, Jeff and the boys are the surly, testosterone fuelled, socially incompetent fifth formers watching impotently from the sidelines, willing their pints of cider to give them enough courage to get involved. They may have the best of intentions, but when it comes to locking into any kind of groove then, frankly, they are quite simply hopeless; you can't carry much of a dance beat on a cello and the end result sounded kitsch and retro long before the current vogue for eighties theme bars. An environment, incidentally, where this track now seems ideally suited. So once again water finds its own level. Whether that's a good or bad thing is one for the listener.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

1980 Don McLean: Crying

By 1980, Don McLean was a successful singer/songwriter who, eight years previously, had a UK number one with 'Vincent', and had also written 'And I Love You So' that was covered by none other than Elvis Presley. 'Crying' though is itself a cover of the 1961 Roy Orbison song that although only managed to reach number 25, was voted number 69 on Rolling Stone's 2004 list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time."

It's not hard to see why. Orbison's lyric is straight, direct, to the point and shorn of any needless baggage:
"I thought that I was over you, but it's true, so true. I love you even more, than I did before, but,darling, what can I do? For you don't love me, and I'll always be crying over you" 

Almost Haiku-like in its simplicity, what makes the original 'Crying' so wondrous is Orbison's searing, three octave range that infuses drama enough for Italian opera into his reading, but left enough room for human vulnerability and a lack of control that meant you could never be sure at any given moment whether he was going to crack and break down in tears. It barely need any backing; the tune and that voice accompanied each other perfectly all by themselves.*

It might seem a bit strange to go on about Roy when I'm meant to be discussing Don, but it's necessary as counterpoint; McLean's version is the virtual antithesis of the above. Where Orbison soared, McLean's whine struggles to emote and, knowing he can't compete with a voice of Orbison's calibre, he plays it for sympathy rather than empathy, straining his eyes shut for the high notes while an orchestration of treacly strings drip slowly down the wall behind him - where Orbison's song is a three course meal prepared by a cordon bleu chef, McLean's attempt is two slices of thin white bread wrapped around a large chunk of fatty ham. And just as appetising.

* Check out 'Llorando', a Spanish version 'Crying' sung A Cappella on the 'Mulholland Drive' soundtrack for a good illustration of what I mean .

Saturday, 10 January 2009

1980 M.A.S.H: Theme From M.A.S.H. (Suicide Is Painless)

It is one of life's enduring mysteries as to why the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest are dragged to hell and back through the American courts by families who claim that a snippet of misheard lyric - when played backwards - has resulted in someone taking their life whilst songs unambiguously advocating suicide as a positive (anti) life choice get off scott free.* Like this one.

I try to find a way to make all our little joys relate, without that ever-present hate. But now I know that it's too late, and..suicide is painless, it brings on many changes, and I can take or leave it if I please" - why spend hours fiddling around trying to spin a turntable the wrong way when you've got this egging you on?** But whatever - 'Suicide Is Painless' is a strange song to have at number one, being the theme from an American TV show that had been running by then for almost a decade. The imagery and tone of the song may work well in terms of a backdrop to a black comedy about the Korean war, but as a summer hit (and 1980 summer was pretty warm and sunny), it's a bit mystifying. Just who was buying it?

As a song, 'Suicide Is Painless' is very American, very late sixties (it was originally released in 1970) and very West coast, sounding a bit like an on-a-downer Laurel Canyon vocal group's take on 'Sealed With A Kiss' only with suitably nihilistic and jaded lyrics (written here by M.A.S.H director Robert Altman's son). It's too spooky and earthreal to be dismissed out of hand as a novelty record and yet it's too flaky to be regarded as anything other (see also Barry Maguire's 'Eve Of Destruction'), though there is a certain irony in having this follow Logan's song of optimistically waiting for a better day; a kind of 'Why Another Year' perhaps? Maybe then this was bought by people trying to tell Johnny something.....

* See for example/chief offender Blue Oyster Cult's '(Don't Fear) The Reaper', a hypnotic sway of seductive Byrds-ian jangle and cowbells that equates death with flying - it pushes the 'kill yourself' angle upfront and yet nothing is said, and there's something in the matter of factness of 'Came the last night of sadness, and it was clear she couldn't go on' that's positively bloody chilling.

** It kind of reminds me of Bill Hick's comment about cocaine addicts spoiling it for everyone else - if you think you can fly, then why not try and take off from the floor?

1980 Johnny Logan: What's Another Year?

In 1980, 'What's Another Year' must have seemed a strange choice for a Eurovision entry, let alone a winner.* Whereas success in the past relied on a strong, bouncy tune and/or nonsense lyrics that cut across all language barriers, 'What's Another Year' is rather a maudlin track that offers very little for anybody with no grasp of English (yes there's a nice saxophone intro, but that wasn't in the Eurovision version). But there again, for those with a grasp of English, it doesn't offer too much more; that big stickered tear on the cover is pretty symbolic of what was in the grooves.

"I've been waiting such a long time,
looking out for you. But you're not here. What's another year? What's another year for someone who is getting used to being alone?"....and so it goes on. I have vivid memories of Johnny gazing mournfully at every camera he ever sang the song into, willing every woman from nine to ninety to come and show him what he's been missing, if not in person then at least by buying his record. Which they did, by the skipfull. 'Inoffensively harmless' is the best you can say about this surface slick but emotion free creation, like a 'John The Baptist' to James Blunt's 'Jesus Of Shite'. Logan's voice is too flat and forgettable to make the song his 'own' and I think any number of X Factor winners could make a better fist of it. And that says it all really.

* Despite winning the Eurovision Song Contest (twice) under cover of the Irish flag, Logan (or Sean Sherrard to his mother) was actually born in Melbourne, Australia.

Friday, 9 January 2009

1980 Dexy's Midnight Runners: Geno

'Geno' details vocalist Kevin Rowland's love - or rather obsession - for US ex patriot soul singer Geno Washington who, with the Ram Jam Band, enjoyed a massive underground popularity in the late sixties."That man took the stage, his towel was swingin' high.This man was my bombers, my Dexy's, my high" - Rowland's heart is there on his sleeve, and yet for all the celebration of the Dexedrine fuelled R&B scene of those times, there is little chance of anybody working up a good head of steam dancing to this; in fact, it's hard to imagine a more fiercely uncompromising or defiantly uncommercial song at number one without heading off into the territory of the atonal or avant guard. 

The opening horns kickstart the song by stubbornly playing sluggish riff behind the beat as Rowland intones in his love in his familiar love it or hate it style - "Back in '68 in a sweaty club, Oh, Geno. Before Jimmy's Machine and The Rocksteady Rub, Oh-oh-oh Geno-o".  Then, after the wrongfoot, it shifts a mighty gear into a tuneful blaze of Northern Soul swing before collapsing back in on itself when the horn motif returns, forcing everything to slow down and leaving those on the dancefloor stranded high and dry, with their only option being to sing along to the 'Oh Geno' refrain because there's nothing left to be done with the feet. As an exercise in frustration it's hard to beat, simply because there seems to be two separate songs competing with each other in a race to the finish, both of which could have got to number one had they been separated at birth.

Not that Rowland would give two shits; compromise was never a word in his vocabulary and the fact that enough people bought it to put it at number one is neither here nor there; 'Geno' is fuelled by passion, sheer passion for both the man and the concept of the music that Dexy's themselves sought to create. Later singles and albums would get overtly political and often appear to use the music merely as medium to convey Rowland's increasingly idiosyncratic and marginal opinions, but 'Geno' is a blast of retro soul in a modern setting and it remains a fine illustration of the unbridled joy that can be inherent in the making of, and listening to, music.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

1980 Blondie: Call Me

Taken from the soundtrack to a long forgotten Richard Gere film ('American Gigolo' if you're interested), 'Call Me' marked a rare breakaway from the band's usual producer Mike Chapman and instead saw Giorgio Moroder taking over production duties. And it shows. Though Moroder had an enviable track record of shimmering, hypnotic dance classics with Donna Summer ('Love To Love You Baby' et al) that had a Kraftwerk-like sparseness (in fact, Moroder's original title for the instrumental track for 'Call Me' was 'Man Machine') but with sensuousness to spare, 'Call Me' runs in defiantly the opposite direction.

Perhaps recognising the limitations of Harry's voice, Moroder throws two kitchen sinks at the song in the hope that something will stick; guitars thrum over synth riffs, drums thump over guitar riffs and just when you start to get used to the carnage there's a ghastly synth guitar riff that whines through the middle eight that carbon dates the whole caboodle quite horribly. Even the hook of the chorus is augmented needlessly by a gorilla grunt call and response that harks back to Glam's salad days, and to add even more eggs to the pudding, everything seems to have been mixed concrete thick and at the same volume.

With no room to breathe between the tracks, Harry has to shout
almost continuously to be heard above the din. And not to be outdone by the car crash going on around her, she starts vocalising in French and Italian halfway through, though what was cute on 'Sunday Girl' (on some versions anyway) now sounds forced and pretentious. 'Call Me' is by no means a bad single - it's fun in a trashy kind of way and there is a decent song underneath struggling to break through - it just doesn't sound much like a Blondie single. For all it's busy brashness, it never locks into any kind of groove and instead wanders like a dog sniffing out a place to piss. And because of the above, it's also dated far worse than their earlier singles like 'Rip Her To Shreds' or 'Picture This'. Now they sound like proper Blondie singles. The trouble is, from here on in Blondie were fated to not sound much like Blondie ever again.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

1980 Detroit Spinners: Working My Way Back To You

The Spinners (the 'Detroit' was only used in the UK to differentiate them from the Scouse folksters with the same name) had been around in one form or another since the mid 1950's and enjoyed a certain degree of success in the early seventies, though 'Working My Way Back To You' was their only UK number one.

Something of a departure from their earlier, sweeter Philly soul sound, 'Working' was aimed four square at the disco market and is in fact a medley of 'Working My Way Back To You' (a 1966 hit for The Four Seasons), and Michael Zager's 'Forgive Me Girl'. It's an interesting idea, but one that doesn't quite come off. And that's for two reasons.

Firstly, the lyric(s) of the tracks are meant to convey heartbreak and regret at the way the singer has treated now ex-girlfriend:
"When you were so in love with me,I played around like I was free. Thought I could have my cake and eat it too, but how I cried over losing you". In the hands of an Otis, a Marvin or a Percy (and a top drawer string arrangement) then this could be tearjerking material, but it loses its impact somewhat when sung by a neo disco band who swagger around like Huggy Bear's quins with shiteating grins that suggest that they haven't learned their lesson at all but are confident the 'girl' will come to their senses and take them back. No worries mate. This isn't a headshot in itself as nobody pays too much heed to lyrics when they're on the dancefloor in the early hours; as long as there's a swaggering rhythm to swing to then all is well. But here there isn't.

In The Spinner's hands, the track is presented as a funk lite workout that barely breaks sweat. The all important walking bassline sits this one out and the track is driven by a standard and rather clod-hopping 4/4 beat that makes the whole thing fall between the two stools of the Philadelphia soul of Harold Melvin or The Delfonics (which it's slightly too rowdy to live with), and pure hi-energy disco (which it's too limp to emulate). This may well have given it the wider audience and sales figures that put it to number one, but I can't imagine anybody would have dug this out for a listen once the novelty had worn off. It's not a disaster by any means, but it's a surprising number one considering the better genre tracks that weren't even mentioned in dispatches.

Monday, 5 January 2009

1980 The Jam: Going Underground

It's passed into music folklore that 'Dreams Of Children' was meant to be the A side of the new Jam single and 'Going Underground' the B. On one hand, it's easy to see why; following the angry bite of 'Eton Rifles' with something less sharp showed the musical development and progress that Paul Weller was starting to crave - after all, tunewise, 'Going Underground' is basically just a sped up re-mould of their earlier 'Down In The Tube Station At Midnight' and lyricwise a re-write of 'Away From The Numbers'. Serendipity at the pressing plant meant the sides were switched but it seems almost laughable in hindsight how any of the parties could have viewed 'Going Underground' as anything other than a number one.

Ah yes -
'Going Underground' in fact debuted at number one, no mean feat for any band twenty five years ago, but for a former punk band only recently written off, and spouting an angry, left wing agenda within a song decrying popularism, it was little short of miraculous.* Here, Weller's embittered lyric saw him turning his back on the modern world he was cocksure he had no need of a few short years earlier ( In 'This Is The Modern World' "Don't have to explain myself to you I don't give two fucks about your review" ) to angrily barking his despair at "The braying sheep on my TV screen, make this boy shout, make this boy scream!". Despair it may be, but it's despair that tempers its bile by serving it gift wrapped in a choppy, glorious surge of hard hitting pop that's straitjacket tight and flab free despite having almost more key changes in its entire three minutes than the whole of their first two albums combined. 

And on that note, no matter how many times I listen to it (and it's frequently), I can never quite believe that it lasts less than three minutes from start to finish. The opening staccato guitar riff feels like a face slap to get both your attention and Weller's point across before careering through the gears to a fist pounding chorus as the band both take on the world and dance away from it into the counter culture. In a sense, 'Going Underground' marked the beginning of the end for The Jam; they never sounded quite so angry again, and when Weller sang of wanting to go where 'the brass bands play and feet start to pound.' he possibly had his favoured Northern Soul in mind, a scene that would influence and permeate the remainder of the band's output and ultimately lead to their break-up when he had taken his vision and ambition as far as he could within its power trio context. But whatever, no matter what Weller has done since, or may yet do, 'Going Underground' will be on the podium in any anthology of his best work. And deservedly so.

For they still had edge enough at the time for my science teacher to demand I remove that 'Communist propaganda' from my workbook when I'd covered it with a full page advert for 'The Eton Rifles' from the NME. I had no idea what 'Communist propaganda' was, but by god it sounded cool.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

1980 Fern Kinney: Together We Are Beautiful

Number one for a single week in March, it's almost overstating the case to brand Fern Kinney and her song as a 'one hit wonder' because it almost lacks the substance to justify that decsription; it's almost like a ghost, the song that wasn't there. Not wishing to be unduly uncharitable, but I doubt few will remember it, much less recite any lyric other than the chorus. Not only that, but its hardly ever been anthologised, rarely played on the oldies stations, didn't chart at all in her native USA and Kinney herself slipped back into the obscurity she crept from shortly afterwards.

Even the song itself can hardly be bothered to justify it's own existence; a reggae tinged guitar riff chugs over a backing rhythm straight off a pre-set option on a Yamaha home organ, while Fern's take or leave it vibrato squeaks like a rusty hinge over the top with precious little conviction. But there again, the lyric itself hardly lends itself to too much emoting; I can't imagine many starry eyed lovers being overly enamoured hearing:"I've gone with better looking guys.He's gone with prettier looking girls. But now we're beautiful", while:"I am the rain, he is the sun, and now we've made a rainbow" is something a Poundstore greeting card writer might have binned as being too wet.

Ultimately, there's nothing inherently wrong with this, but any number one sitting in between Blondie and The Jam is going to have to punch hard to be heard and I'm afraid 'Together' simply doesn't make the weight.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

1980 Blondie: Atomic

Taken on one level, 'Atomic' isn't really a song at all. The 'three blind mice' thump of the prologue slips into a stripped down four note flamenco guitar riff that punctuates a relentless yet standard hi-hat let disco beat running straight and true and hard as a train rail. Lyrically, it's a scrapbook of twelve pick and mix words repeated over and over in various combinations in Debbie Harry's unmistakable New Jersey drawl that's careful to never punch above it's weight and stays well away from the high notes.
Yet the genius of 'Atomic' is that it transcends the sum of these inconsequential parts to build into a juggernaught, a swirling hurricane of sound that has Harry at it's eye bellowing 'Your hair is beautiful' and making it sound like the best compliment you ever got in your life. The sleeve may have had her preening in front of a mushroom cloud, but there's no doubt that the only bombs going off here are between her legs - sensuality and war, sex and death; how could it fail? It can't, and it doesn't - 'Atomic' is the sound of an unstoppable band at their peak. The only shame is that they would never be this interesting again.

1980 Kenny Rogers: The Coward Of The County

Kenny Rogers had been peddling his own brand of country lite country music since the late 1960's, but he mined a seam of inexplicable popularity in the late seventies/early eighties with 'Coward Of The County' racking up his second number one following 'Lucille' in 1977 and both songs had Roger Bowling as co-writer (though Rogers himself had a hand in neither).

A story in song, the titular 'coward' concerns supposed milksop 'Tommy' who, via a series of unfortunate events, reveals himself to not to be as yellow as the townsfolk think. In essence,
'Coward Of The County' is a typically mawkish morality tale delivered in Rogers' barely singing vocal style to a lazy metronomic beat that drifts along the middle of the road to the 'uplifting' dénouement where the world appears to be neatly put to rights. In tone and structure it's as inoffensive and unthreatening as Bambi on ice and the worst that can be said is that it has an earworm hook that serves to irritate the hater as much as it pleases the fan on karaoke night. But in their hurry to get to that feelgood, singalong chorus, I wonder how many of the 670,000 people who put this at number one actually stopped to consider what Rogers is singing about? Did Kenny himself give it any thought? Let's get all postmodern on its ass.........

"Everyone considered him the coward of the county. He'd never stood one single time to prove the county wrong. His mama named him Tommy, the folks just called him yellow, but something always told me they were reading Tommy wrong". Just what is going on here? Prove the county wrong? Against what? What has it been accused of, and why is it Tommy's job to sort it out? There must have been something he specifically did or didn't do to be branded 'yellow', but whatever it was, Rogers isn't telling.

"He was only ten years old when his daddy died in prison. I looked after Tommy cause he was my brothers son. I still recall the final words my brother said to Tommy:son, my life is over, but yours is just begun.Promise me, son, not to do the things I've done. Walk away from trouble if you can. It wont mean you're weak if you turn the other cheek. I hope you're old enough to understand: son, you don't have to fight to be a man". Well what happened to Tommy's mother I wonder? And if his father was as tough as Rogers claims, then surely nobody would dare to make fun of his son lest they get a punch on the nose for their troubles. Because I think this goes beyond simple nit-picking; this is lazy songwriting in the extreme. The  characters and events of 'Coward Of The County' are drawn with as much depth and precision as a Punch and Judy show, but it's the audacity of the next verse that takes the cake:"There's someone for everyone and Tommy's love was Becky. In her arms he didn't have to prove he was a man. One day while he was working the Gatlin boys came calling. They took turns at Becky.... there was three of them!"

So far, so 'I Spit On Your Grave' then - what Rogers is doing here is describing the gang rape of his nephew's wife, albeit in the same emotionless, laid back tone of a man reading the weather report. What's more, the 'wife' is a fleshless bone introduced solely to get raped, and her only characterisation comes via the
diminutive 'Becky; rather than 'Rebecca' (and for that matter 'Tommy' instead of 'Tom' or 'Thomas') - in other words, a cynical ploy to generate doe eyed sympathy; 'we all know a Becky' it seems to imply. And just who are these Gatlin boys? Did they have a vendetta against Tommy, or were did just happen to be passing and decided to take their chances against a woman alone? Would the answer to this make the song any better or any worse? Again, Kenny aint saying.

Roger's delivery doesn't exactly raise the emotion bar too highly either - the 'there was three of them' is spoken almost with a 'tut' and the mild annoyance of a man who has just found a  scratch in his car bonnet.
"Tommy opened up the door and saw his Becky crying. The torn dress, the shattered look was more than he could stand.He reached above the fireplace and took down his daddy's picture. As his tears fell on his daddy's face, he heard these words again" and cue the good time, singalong chorus.

"The Gatlin boys just laughed at him when he walked into the barroom. One of them got up and met him halfway cross the floor. When Tommy turned around they said, hey look! ol yellows leaving. But you coulda heard a pin drop when Tommy stopped and blocked the door. Twenty years of crawlin' was bottled up inside him. He wasn't holdin' nothin' back; he let 'em have it all. When Tommy left the barroom not a Gatlin boy was standin'. He said, this one's for Becky, as he watched the last one fall".

So what's going on here? Has Tommy killed all the Gatlin boys or has he just given them a good hiding? The language and all the dropped 'g's' (which Roger's faithfully enunciates) are aimed to show a man at the end of his rope, but what of the ultimate outcome? Does Tommy get arrested and jailed for murder, or does the county sheriff turn a blind eye? Are there no consequences to these actions? Again, nobody here is saying and we then end with:
"I promised you, dad, not to do the things you done" (I'll ignore the non attempt to at least try and make this re-written line scan because I've come to expect no better from the hacks behind this) "I walk away from trouble when I can. Now please don't think I'm weak, I didn't turn the other cheek,And papa, I sure hope you understand: Sometimes you gotta fight when you're a man". And because of all this, 'Coward Of The County' leaves me confused; what is it trying to say? "Sometimes you gotta fight when you're a man"? - are law, justice, due procedure and fair process just ideals we pay lip service to when it suits? And if they are, when can they be ignored? Is the gang rape of your partner the thin or the thick end of this particular wedge? Again, nobody here is saying, and as long as we can all singalong to the chorus at the end then who cares?

Well, I care, and what 'Coward of the County' boils down to is tub thumping jingoism populated by characters who aren't there with the underlying questionable morality obscured by a gloopy sentimentality that for all it's sugar leaves a sour taste in the mouth. I could get political here, but I won't. But suffice it to say that at least the execrable Toby Keith came right out with it in his 'response' to 9/11:

"Ohhh Justice will be served and the battle will rage. This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage. And you'll be sorry that you messed with The U.S. of A, 'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American way"

But of course, Toby Keith didn't get to number one. Thakfully.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

1980 The Special A.K.A: LIVE!

Reggae, ska, bluebeat etc had never been strangers to the UK singles chart; the likes of Bob Marley, Prince Buster, Jimmy Cliff, David and Ansell Collins had already provided a slew of one (or at least not many more) hit wonders throughout the late sixties and seventies.*  Such appearances though were sporadic, and the culture and movement associated with the music remained largely underground and highly resistant to exposure and commercialisation. It was also almost strictly the province of the Jamaican and Caribbean performers from whose culture it sprang. The only white artists to have any impact on the charts were the likes of Judge Dredd and The Piranhas and this only further served to make the tag of 'novelty' that seemed to attach to this genre a hard one to shift.

Led by the mercurial Jerry Dammers, Coventry's 'The Specials' were a mixed race band who created both a seminal fashion identity and zeitgeist (ugh!) defining record label (Two Tone) that hauled the rude boy look defiantly overground and served it up on a heavily politicised platter to an emerging generation who had precious little to dance about.**  Although marketed as an EP, the lead (and most played) track here was a live version of 'Too Much Too Young', a song modelled on Lloyd Charmers 'Birth Control' (from 1969) that originally appeared on their debut 'Specials' album. Recorded live at The Lyceum in London, 'Too Much Too Young' is a showcase for all the qualities that came to be associated with Two Tone in general - a relentlessly pumping ska rhythm greased with sweat and steam and cemented with Terry Hall's deadpan yet deathly serious singspeak that berates a young girl for falling pregnant with "You done too much much too young. You're married with a kid when you could be having fun with me" and "Ain't he cute, no he ain't. He's just another burden on the welfare state". Nasty maybe, but as topical as the weather - it could have been written and recorded yesterday with readers of the Daily Mail nodding their heads in approval to the sentiment if not the music.

Despite this, Hall's exasperated call and response to his own questions is far from a championing of some right wing agenda vilifying teenage pregnancies and demonising non working mums. Hall couldn't give a toss about the burden on the taxpayer and though his comments are honest and observant, he is focussing on one individual here rather than addressing a wider social problem and he's more concerned by the fact that this girl has now fallen unavailable to him when he'd clearly like to get his hand up her skirt - what it lacks in integrity it makes up for in honesty, and it's an honesty that spoke directly to the audience of the first teenagers to be reared on Maggie's Farm. You can almost feel his hormones working overtime as the band behind urge him to a climax of shouted frustration on "try wearing a cap."

The Specials would go on to greater things before messily imploding in a spectacular display of dis-unity (but more of that later), but this live format captures superbly the strengths of both band and genre - music for the feet, lyrics for the mind.

* To illustrate this, of the five tracks on the EP, three had previously charted in the UK. 'Long Shot Kick De Bucket' was a hit for The Pioneers in 1969, The Skalites took 'Guns of Navarone' to number 36 in 1967, and 'The Liquidator' was a number 9 hit for Harry J Allstars in 1969.

** This cross-over has been well documented and a definite line can be traced from The Clash (who covered 'Police and Thieves' on their debut album before creating dub mixes of their own and dabbling in early hip-hop) to likes of The Ruts, The Members and Stiff Little Fingers, who also appropriated skanking rhythms and techniques and overlaying them with their own political and social agendas.

1980 Pretenders: Brass In Pocket

Bleeding over from the new wave movement of the late 70's, Pretenders (no 'The') were the first band to actually hit number one in the 80's Pink Floyd's follow through into the new decade. Originally from Ohio, one woman hurricane Chrissie Hynde had been resident in the UK since 1973, and as if to reflect the Anglo-American influence of it's creator, 'Brass In Pocket' is a curious mix of American swagger and British pub rock with Hynde's cocksure vocal staying just ahead of the beat for the duration, almost taunting her very British (Hereford to be exact) backing band to keep up with her and the times.

Hynde was a scary prospect to the average, seventies raised rock fan like me whose only experience of a leathered up female front woman to date had been Suzi Quatro, and Suzi always knew exactly which cheek her tongue was in (
while wiggling her other cheeks in sprayed on jeans). Eye candy first and foremost, the bass guitar she played looked to be there for ornamental purposes only and she exuded no threat whatsoever in belting out whatever nonsense Chinn and Chapman put before her.* That's not to single out Suzi particularly, but she's a good a counterpoint as any to Hynde who was always deadly serious in what she did; there was nothing of the novelty about the girl from Ohio, she just happened to be a female leader of an otherwise all male band and if that was a novelty, then Hynde clearly didn't see it.

Hynde has reputedly always hated 'Brass in Pocket' and that's her prerogative, but her "I gonna make you see, there's nobody else here, no one like me. I'm special, so special" in her swaggering, confrontational manner made every word sound like she was picking a fight with anyone with front enough to disagree. Threatening maybe, but it
did more for the feminist cause of equality than a shelf full of Andrea Dworkin, moreso than a Patti Smith because she brought into our living rooms -into MY living room - at prime time, tea time and was harder to ignore. A good start to the decade then.

* Reading that back, I fear I'm doing Quatro an immense disservice and, for the record, I should say that in a better, less male dominated alternate rock reality, she's been fronting AC/DC since the day Bon Scott died.