Saturday, 21 February 2009

1981 The Human League: Don't You Want Me

Sheffield's The Human League had been tinkering in the electronic music field since the late seventies, but various splits within the group meant that the band that recorded 'Don't You Want Me' (no question mark) were a faction that had only half of the original members.

One of the most remarkable things about 'Don't You Want Me' is that vocalist Phil Oakey absolutely hated it and that it was the fourth single to be taken (
at the label's insistence) off their breakthrough 'Dare' album . And yet it resolutely screams out 'hit single' from the opening bars with the unfolding story drawing the listener in to a timeless soap opera in miniature. There is still not a dancefloor or bar in the country that won't have punters acting out the lyrics and yelling along to the chorus whenever and wherever it's played.

'Don't You Want Me' is a call and response dialogue with Oakey telling his female charge that just because she made the big time, she can't turn her back on the man who put her there. The girl (Suzanne Sulley, complete with a flat, nasally voice that sounds exactly how a waitress from a cocktail bar would sound) does not bend to his will and instead delivers a big 'fuck you' to which Oakey has no response save the veiled
"Its much too late to find, you think you've changed your mind. You'd better change it back or we will both be sorry" threat.

And there it ends. Or rather, it doesn't; it feels as if there's a verse missing and we never find out if the '
we will both be sorry' is bravado or actual threat (the 'film within a film' video had a deleted scene of Oakey shooting Sulley with a pistol from a car window, but it's not clear whether this was a scene from the 'film' or a scene from their 'lives') and this adds a layer of mystery to the song, ending it like a Saturday Morning serial cliff-hanger which complimented the aesthetically glamorous yet emotionally cold imagery the band had adopted by this stage - there's obsession and manipulation in the song but precious little love.

The main riff to 'Don't You Want Me' chugs along like Gary Numan's 'Are Friends Electric?' on adrenalin, but rather than using it to power the song along on a wave of major chords like a rock band, there's an underlying electronic rhythm that throbs like a pulse throughout that keeps things fluid and reveals the band had finally been playing close attention to their Kraftwerk albums. It's a jump forward from their far more primitive sounding early recordings, and they could have gotten away with an aura of innovation had those pesky Kraftwerk kids not shown up with a number one of their own a few weeks hence to reveal their source with a song already four years old.

But no matter, Kraftwerk would never have incorporated an array of such human emotion and perspective in any of their music, so the band were one up on them in that aspect at least. And one up on a lot of contemporary bands who plugged in their keyboards and raided the dressing up box throughout the decade. The eighties are frequently cited as being the decade of style over substance. While in many cases, the decade is guilty as charged, it's not always the case, and tracks like 'Don't You Want Me' show that sometimes you can have both.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

1981 Julio Inglesias: Begin The Beguine

In which a former Real Madrid youth goalkeeper tackles Cole Porter at Christmastime and scores a number one hit.

Just like my bad punning above, much was made of his footballing background at the time and it was great sport to portray him as a gimmicky Euro singer on par with Joe Dolce, when in fact Inglesias had quit the game as far back as 1963 and had been a recording artist since the late 60's.

"Begin The Beguine" has been covered countless times since Porter wrote it in 1935 and his complex 108 beats to the bar rhythm has been a popular source for jazz players to riff on. Hoary old warhorse the song may be, but that doesn't stop Inglesias bringing something new to the party by slowing down the tempo to a more sensuous level and coating it with a smooth Latin groove and a bassline Chic would have been proud of (though I'm not sure what Porter would have thought of it).

So, not quite a straight recording, not quite a novelty and not merely muzak, 'Begin The Beguine' just about earns it's number one spot by virtue of it being almost Christmas, a time when so many crimes can be forgiven, and by the fact that sometimes it's good to have a song at the top that parents (and grandparents) love but the kids all hate with a passion. As long as it doesn't happen too often.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

1981 Queen & David Bowie: Under Pressure

It raises less of an eyebrow today, but in 1981 Queen and Bowie made for unlikely bedfellows; both acts had enjoyed their salad days in the seventies, but by 1981 Queen were heading down a far camper path than previous while Bowie had lost himself in a blizzard of cocaine that produced some very fine music but which was conspicuously short on humour.

In hindsight, it would appear that Bowie was the senior partner in this arrangement. It's his vocal that dominates and it's difficult to imagine the then synthesiser based dance music fixated incarnation of Queen having too much of an input into the amorphic palette of sound that makes up the main body of the track once the introduction is over.

And of course, it's a sound that is stitched together with John Deacon's crisp, clipped bassline that runs through the song like a Morse code signal spelling out 'Q.U.A.L.I.T.Y'. Because if nothing else, it's a killer bassline that not even Vanilla Ice could denigrate.

As for the song itself - again, it's difficult to imagine the obliquely referenced imagery of a relationship breaking down coming from anybody other than Bowie - not that any of Queen were above ladling out the self pity - far from it - but a Queen track was almost never ambiguous and they articulated in a far more direct way than is offered here:

"Pressure pushing down on me

Pressing down on you no man ask for
Under pressure - that burns a building down"

and the bug eyed paranoia of lines like:

"It's the terror of knowing
what this world is about
Watching some good friends screaming 'Let me out'"

could only have come from wherever Bowie's mind was at that time, and he duly sings them in his dry, spaced out 'Thin White Duke' persona of the man still falling to earth.

Of course, Freddie's ego is such that he could never have let him hog the whole of the spotlight, and he counter punches Bowie's jabs by histrionically hitting the high notes Bowie could only dream of reaching and by winning the in-song scat duels hands down.

In the final analysis, 'Under Pressure' is a strong song that plays like a genuine collaboration between two creative talents rather than having Artist A getting Artist B to play backing on his song, and it maintains enough of the personalities of the individual performers to let both sets of fans go home content with the outcome.

Monday, 16 February 2009

1981 The Police: Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic

While holed up in Montserrat recording 'Ghosts In The Machine', The Police clearly took time to chill out and absorb a little more of the Caribbean vibe than just the usual reggae with the result that 'Every Little Thing' was infused with an upbeat calypso feel that brought it's own sun.

But for all the variety, 'Every Little Thing' is barely a song at all - it's a barnstorming chorus that everybody knows sandwiched in-between slices of dour verse that serve as little more than filler; try and sing a line from one of the them. Go on, I dare you.

'Every Little Thing' is a Michael Bay production, a dire summer blockbuster with the one balls out action sequence that sticks in the mind after the credits have rolled, and in that respect it's the equivalent of Bruce Willis taking out a helicopter with a car in Die Hard 4.

And yes, that sparkling Calypso steel band and boogie woogie piano on the chorus was just what the doctor ordered in 1981 as October headed into winter. Still too early for Christmas, but for those wanting to party it provided plentiful splashes of feelgood colour and cheer, accentuated by the accompanying upbeat video of the band shamelessly mugging in the Caribbean sun. This may not be what The Police are best remembered for now but it's harmless stuff; a simple pop singalong dressed up for the Mardi Gras and even now it's hard not to smile when listening to it.

Perhaps in recognition that the water in the reggae well was running out, 'Every Little Thing' would mark a move away from that particular direction, but in yet another wrongfoot this good time groove would prove to be fleeting and The Police would be far more furrowed of brow and stroked of chin once this particular party was over.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

1981 Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin: It's My Party

No, not that Dave Stewart, it's the one formally of Egg and Hatfield And The North (who Gaskin also sang backing vocals for). 'It's My Party' is a cover version of Lesley Gore's 1963 original (also a number one), but this version is very much of the eighties.

Perhaps a bit too much so - electronic experimentation is one thing, but in Stewart and Gaskin's hands this sounds like five wildly different versions of the same song cut up and pieced together at random, a bit like a three minute 'Supper's Ready' (you can tell we're dealing with former prog rockers here).

From the dirge like funeral march of opening to the straight laced bubblegum 'woo woos' at the close, 'It's My Party' never sits still for a moment. Stewart stuffs every loose second with fiddly keyboard, drum fills and at one point a (rather splendid it must be said) sample of peeling church bells, while Gaskin's wide eyed and lost vocal sounds like she's more concerned and confused about what she's doing in a song like this than what Julie and Johnny are up to.

In many ways, it's a forerunner of the wannabe Goth of Shakespeare's Sister - the duo are aiming for the angst filled and overwrought, but they are too commercially savvy to let go of the rope that anchors them to the pop field, making this an awkwardly straight/experimental cover version that's never really given the space to catch fire and isn't much fun to listen to after the first time.

Another problem is that 'It's My Party' is about a young girl's distress at seeing her beloved leaving her party with another girl. Teenage angst is a fine and dandy subject for angst filled teenagers to sing (Gore was 16 when she had her hit with it), but it's not half so convincing coming from a woman in her thirties, and ultimately you just feel like giving her a slap and telling her to pull herself together.

1981 Adam & The Ants: Prince Charming

The make up may have changed (by the time of the album and video at least), but from the opening tribal chants and rattling drum beats, it's business as usual for Adam's second number one of the year. Or rather, business as usual, but we are talking Sunday trading hours here. Because where 'Stand And Deliver' crackled and fizzed with ideas and energy as it raced along, 'Prince Charming' is basically two bars of music repeated throughout in different keys. And as any smartarse will tell you, those two bars were shamelessly lifted from 'War Canoe' by Rolf Harris.

That this got to number says far more about Adam's popularity and what an eye catching video could do for you back in 1981 than any reflection on the music itself. The fierce war screams that litter throughout sound more like bravado by now than the cry of a warrior, giving the impression that Adam thinks if he shouts loud enough it will sound convincing and paper over the cracks that were appearing in the whole concept. True, it's raw and it's primal, but it lacks any kind of excitement or danger.

Lyrically, we're back to the usual 'make sure you always look your best' message, but that in itself was wearing a bit thin by now and here he sounds more like a proud mother dressing her boy for school than a spokesman for disaffected teens looking for a bit of glamour -
"Don't you ever, don't you ever, stop being dandy, showing me you're handsome".And even the celebrated line "Ridicule is nothing to be scared of" now rings a bit hollow after he was committed to psychiatric care in 2002 after threatening pub goers with an imitation pistol after they made fun of his appearance. Bad day for Adam Ant.

The star that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and Adam and the Ants burned ever so brightly in the opening years of the decade. But lacking any kind of substance or variety in the music, it couldn't last and Adam knew it. Even the best pantomimes end their run once Christmas is over. The make up was changed in an attempt to keep things fresh, but the Ants were soon jettisoned to make way for a solo career that almost exactly mirrored that of the band he left behind. But that's another story.

The video for this still looks great though.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

1981 Soft Cell: Tainted Love

The early eighties were fertile stamping ground for a new generation of electronic, synthesiser based bands raised on a heady cocktail of Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder megamixes. Of the main players, OMD, Human League, Depeche Mode et al would go on to bigger things but it was Soft Cell who were the first to of the breed to reach number one with this re-invention of Gloria Jones' classic Northern Soul belter.

While Jones attacked the song with full R&B gusto, Soft Cell stripped it down to it's chassis and rebuilt it around a driving yet remarkably spaced out framework of handclapping, electronic clatter and whipcracking drum loops with Almond's keening vocal filling in the blanks where the music fell silent. And it's this vocal that injects the humanity into the machine and elevates the track above novelty status.

Because for all the pioneering of the arrangement, it still skirts perilously close to gimmicky, and even in 1981 it sounded a bit too much like Dave Ball had just received a synthesiser for Christmas and wanted to show how many different double tap 'bink bink' sounds it could make. Had Almond sung it through a vocoder a la Kraftwerk, then the whole thing would have fallen flat on its arse. But he doesn't.

Whereas Jones sounded glad to see the back of her lover, Almond is less sure and the sheer ordinariness of his voice and his straining to hit or maintain the majority of the notes introduces a confused pathos that everyman could relate to (a trick he'd mine to much greater effect on 'Say Hello, Wave Goodbye'). The fact that nobody was sure whether he was singing to a man or a woman, or exactly what this love was tainted with, added an edge of sleaze and danger that the band thrived on and milked for all it was worth:

"This tainted love you've given

I give you all a boy could give you"

Almond, just by being Almond, neatly subverts the rampant kiss off heterosexuality of the original to climb tightly inside the song and dance around in it as if it were his own skin, which is what a good cover version should do. And this is a good cover version; as instantly recognisable as 'Smoke On The Water' within two seconds of hearing the skittering keyboard introduction, it has buried the original in its re-interpretation as completely as Aretha's version of 'Respect' buried Redding's.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

1981 Aneka: Japanese Boy

It's hard to know which is the more bizarre; the fact that a Scottish singer called Mary Sandeman plucked the name 'Aneka' from a phone book, got dressed up as a Kwik Save geisha girl and had a worldwide hit, or the fact there were enough people willing to buy this nonsense brew of cod oriental musical motifs, cantering disco backbeat with a helium high vocal warbling over the top of it like some early version of Little Britain's Ting Tong Macadangdang.

So what's the issue here? Well, it seems Aneka woke up one morning to find the love of her life has done a runner leaving no forwarding address:

"Was it something I've said or done

That made him pack his
bags up and run?
Could it be another he's found? -

It's breaking up the happy home".

And the chorus

"Mister can you tell me where
my love has gone?
He's a Japanese boy.

I woke up one morning and

my love was gone"

And that's about it. There's nothing specifically 'Japanese' about any of this; the titular 'boy' could have been any race under the sun, Scottish even, and it would not have made a slightest bit of difference to the 'message' which boils down to
'Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep' as written by Proust.

And I think therein lies the rub - Sandeman's natural vocal lends itself to faux Peking Opera stylings and so when given Japanese lemons, she made Japanese lemonade and sold it like a carnival barker to anybody with an eye for the exotic (the 'eighties' of theme bar legend were spluttering into life and Boy George was just around the corner) and the ear for some harmless bubblegum.

Exotic and harmless - essential ingredients for any true, classic one hit wonder.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

1981 Shakin Stevens: Green Door

Another Shakin' Stevens single, another obscure-ish cover version; this time it's 'Green Door', made famous in the UK by Frankie Vaughan's 1956 number 2 hit (though Jim Lowe's original got to number 8 the previous month).

'Green Door' tells the tale of the singer's frustration at not knowing what kind of carry on is going down behind the eponymous coloured door. It's never explained, but it sounds like a hell of a party:

"There's an old piano and
they play it hot behind the green door
Don't know what they're doin'
But they laugh a lot behind the green door"

The problem here is that Stevens attacks the song with such straight enthusiasm it sounds like he doesn't really care all that much about 'what they're doin'' because he's having such a blast on his side of the door; it's actually the others who are missing out on the action and the "eyeball peepin' through a smokey cloud" belongs to someone watching him jealously, just dying to join in.

But that was 'Shakey' in the eighties, a one man party in a denim jacket. You didn't buy his singles to sit and watch through a keyhole, you were meant to get up and dance around with him and there was no need to stand on ceremony either. It's easy to dismiss this as a novelty cover version, but just like 'This Old House', the energy is infectious and only the most po of faces would be able to resist cracking a smile at it.

Friday, 6 February 2009

1981 The Specials: Ghost Town

In terms of social context, the appearance of 'Ghost Town' in the charts and the rioting in Brixton and Toxteth is a coincidence astonishing enough to question whether one begat the other and which came first? Certainly, no band had captured the mood of the 'nation you don't normally see' with such a bullseye accuracy since the Sex Pistols took their alternative national anthem to the top of every unfixed chart in the country four years earlier, and both tracks are the sound of planets grinding into alignment to prophesise doom.

In terms of ambition and musical progression, 'Ghost Town' is to early Specials what 'Tomorrow Never Knows' was to 'She Loves You'. The sound is eclectic; a broad, loosely stitched together patchwork of styles and influences soundtracking a theme that equates the abandoned ghost towns of penny westerns to the band's own contemporary Coventry. Throughout, a gentle ska beat shuffles to nowhere in the background whilst a ghostly Morricone whistle motif borrowed from a spaghetti western never filmed threads through the foreground and blows through the song like tumbleweed.

The desolate mood of abandonment is only punctuated by glaring stabs of brass and a brace of alternating lead vocals emoting a collective anger made all the more menacing by their curious tone of quiet resignation that suggests they know a change is a going to come and where its going to come from. At the refrain, more Morricone vocal stylings, only this time they are the screams of someone possessed.

Relief comes at the middle eight where the whole thing turns on it's head as Terry Hall remembers the 'all green fields round here' way things used to be over a blaring mariachi trumpet:

"Do you remember the good old days

Before the ghost town?
We danced and sang,
And the music played inna de boomtown"

But the relief is shortlived and soon the tumbleweed starts rolling again and fades to silence as reality once again bites; after all, you can't live your life around memories.

I was on holiday in Cornwall with my parents when 'Ghost Town' was number one and the chill from Staples' 'People getting angry' and his blank stare into the camera on the video pervaded even there so lord alone knows how it went down in the inner cities. Yet despite this, the concern of the lyrics are essentially restricted to a plea and a warning from a generation under twenty five - who else really gives a toss about clubs being closed and no bands playing?

"Why must the youth fight against themselves?

Government leaving the youth on the shelf"

This was certainly true in Thatcher's Britain of the early eighties where to be young and poor were sins most foul and not compatible with the rampant free market politics, stinging welfare cuts and the capitalist yuppie agenda. And yet for all it's capturing of a time and a place, 'Ghost Town' today still sounds horribly, horribly contemporary. Only this time round it's not just the usual suspects who are suffering.

So there we have it, the decade is only some eighteen months old and already we have had its greatest number one.
In terms of structure, music, style, inlfuence and lyrics, 'Ghost Town' is unimprovable and the band, who were essentially no more even while the song was riding high, didn't even try to follow it. How could they?

Thursday, 5 February 2009

1981 Michael Jackson: One Day In Your Life

'One Day In Your Life' is a 1975 album track shamelessly re-released by Motown to cash in on the success Jackson was having with his 'Off The Wall' album (which wasn't on Motown. None of the singles off it got to number one either). As a point of comparison, it's about as far from the pneumatic sheen of that album as you could get. There's no Quincy Jones studio trickery here; there's no walking basslines, no programmed drum loops and no Eddie Van Halen guitar solos - 'One Day' is a straightforward piano led ballad that you would never guess was leading into a Michael Jackson vocal until he actually starts singing.

And even then, the naked vulnerability of his single tracked voice and the absence of the usual trademark orgasmic yelps and squeals comes as something of a surprise. Jackson had already proved he could do R&B in his years with the Jackson 5, and later he would go on to take polish the pop template until it gleamed, though in both these incarnations there was always an element of
playing to the gallery that didn't necessitate the injection of too much humanity. But that's not a problem here; Jackson was still finding his range in 1975, and the cracking of his untrained voice on the high notes adds an extra dimension to yearning vulnerability of the lyrics, revealing a human side to the singer that showed he could hurt too in a way that the child star and 'King of Pop' (TM) never did. 'One Day In Your Life' may have shown that he clearly had no future as a crooner, but there is human emotion and human honesty in this recording that is strangely absent from the career's that bookend it.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

1981 Smokey Robinson: Being With You

A late hit for one of the kings of Motown and his last ever appearance in the UK charts, 'Being With You', eschews the musical tricks and motifs of Robinson's older hits like 'Tears Of A Clown' for a straightforward and languid track that washes over the listener like a warm Caribbean wave. Very much a precursor to Marvin Gaye's own late hit 'Sexual Healing', what 'Being With You' lacks in clout and bite it makes up for with Robinson's voice, an instrument in as sweet a form as it ever was and elevates this well above background music fayre.

Though perhaps the background is the best way to appreciate it, as long as you're with a loved one - 'Being With You' isn't styled for careful, solo listening. Because through careful listening you'll notice the annoying eighties production stalwarts of squealing saxophone, electric piano, breathless backing vocals and tinny Linn drum sound that would become de rigueur as the decade pressed on. You can't blame Motown for wanting to embrace the zeitgeist and update their sound, but here it renders a simple song overly fussy and a far sparser arrangement would have set the song off the way a plain gold ring sets off a diamond.
Thankfully though, none of that really matters; it all boils down to a simple enough message, and who could resist being told: "I don't care about anything else but, bein' with you, bein' with you"? Especially by a voice like that.

Monday, 2 February 2009

1981 Adam & The Ants: Stand And Deliver

From the burned out vestiges of a second rate punk band, Stuart Goddard reinvented himself as 'Adam Ant' in body and mind before taking the whole 'ant' persona as literal interpretation and running with it all the way to the bank with a series of singles and albums that celebrated image over substance and gave the eighties its first true icon. 'Stand and Deliver' was their first number one, but they had previous in the form of four top ten singles the previous twelve months.

Looking back, each of the 'Ant' singles was a self contained manifesto that set out what they were about and what they were going to do. Taking the Gary Glitter glam rock two drummers approach, but playing in a Burundi style, Adam rapped about his 'Antmusic' and how to live the good life. In this at least, 'Stand and Deliver' is no exception;
"I'm the dandy highwayman who you're too scared to mention I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention". By this time though, a far more buffed sound replaced the thin white tunes of the 'Kings Of The Wild Frontier' era, and hearing 'Stand and Deliver' for the first time was akin to the moment in 'The Wizard Of Oz' where the film stock switches from black and white to colour.

From the opening horn salute, 'Stand and Deliver' gallops along like the horse Adam rides in its accompanying video, where his self knowing flirting with the camera walked a fine line between danger and camp. That he pulled off superbly swelled his fanbase considerably, making this a single that both the punked up lads and heart struck girls (and vice versa) would be happy to be seen buying. (The video also features a glammed up Marco Pironni as the least convincing band bloke in make up since Steve Priest of The Sweet. Unlike Steve, he doesn't look like he's much enjoying himself to compensate).

Song, video, image - the whole thing can be seen is a self contained package and, lyrically, Adam is again grandstanding as to why he's so much cooler than everyone else and how wonderful it is to be young, while the band play catch up with some gloriously chunky, fuzzy guitar and tribal chants/Indian whoops and yelps that intersperse the frantic drumming, building to an unstoppable crescendo of whoops and
"Da diddley qa qa da diddley qa qa's" that build like a latter day Lisa Lashes hardcore house workout. Like all the best pop songs, 'Stand and Deliver''s longevity wasn't built on the need be taken seriously; the whole thing is shot through with a playful verve that would gradually, sadly disappear from Ant's future output. In a few short months the white stripe would be gone. Next it would be the band. After that the hits then the career and, with nothing left to lose, he would lose himself too, leaving this as a gleaming, immovable testament.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

1981 Bucks Fizz: Making Your Mind Up

At certain points during my journey through the number ones it's sometimes been hard to know exactly what I'm writing about. Like here. Is it about the band? What band? Bucks Fizz were an artificial creation brought together specifically to sing this particular song at Eurovision. The song? Normal reviews are 'about' the band playing the song, but this is a clear case of the song playing the band. Again, the song was written specifically to represent the UK at the contest. 'Making Your Mind Up' could have been sung by virtually any number of people in a male/female 'remember it worked for Abba' combination and Bucks Fizz hardly stamp their own seal of identity on it vocally. I can imagine Brotherhood of Man tackling it and it sounding exactly the same.It won, so job done. Is there anything more that can be said?

Maybe; 'Making Your Mind Up' is a disco lite, bubblegum tune that sprints along its busy way with a grin permanently glued to its face. You can't help but think that the whole song was written with one eye on a memorable dance routine to catch the judge's eyes on the night, and the "And try to look as if you don't care less, but if you want to see some more"  lines look written solely as cabaret so that 'the boys' could whip the skirts off 'the girls' to reveal an extra bit of flesh in case those judges were wavering and thinking of giving full points to the Germans.  And that's this single in a nutshell - four good looking, young blonde people in co-ordinated colour clothes singing a bright, bouncy tune that sacrificed meaning for singalongability (Stock, Aitken and Waterman would go on to make a killing from the same formula later in the decade). It came as a package stamped 'Eurovision Winner', and that's exactly what it did. As I said, job done. Next.

1981 Shakin Stevens: This Ole House

Long before his cabaret style persona, Stevens fronted a hardcore R&R revivalist band 'The Sunsets' and had been recording since the early seventies. Success was a long time coming, but Shaky hit paydirt in the early eighties with a succession of cover versions of more obscure 1950's tunes, like this one. Originally a country fused with pop 1954 number one hit for Rosemary Clooney, Stevens knew his history well enough to be able to get under the skin of the track and make it move to his will. His heritage and passion for all things rock 'n' roll ensured that he wasn't going to re-interpret this to gloomily emphasises its morbid subject matter. Not on your life; rather, his attack is shot through with a vigour and verve that puts many of the contemporary 'new wave' acts to shame and raises it a few notches above karaoke. As if punk never happened indeed! Stevens may have later become a caricature of his own persona that belied his traditionalist past, and this may be just a another cover version, but it's a highly competent one that updates and revamps rather than just lazily (re) paint by numbers. And you can't ask for much more than that.

1981 Roxy Music: Jealous Guy

As the sleeve says - a tribute' to the murdered John Lennon by way of a cover of one of his better and better known solo songs. In theme, 'Jealous Guy' covers much the same ground as 'Woman', but it's everything that the later song is not in that it asking a woman to forgive a wrong in a simple, direct style that is obviously from the heart:"I didn't mean to hurt you, I'm sorry that I made you cry. I didn't want to hurt you, I'm just a jealous guy"  Honest too - Lennon is admitting the flaw in his own character that has caused the hurt, but he's not so deceitful as to make the age old promise of "I promise I'll change"; it's a case of love me, love my jealousy, even if it takes us down the road to ruin. 

A good song then, and a hard one to mess up. Roxy Music are far too professional an outfit to trip over their own feet in their presentation of this, and the languid synth washes are very much of the band at that time and it's almost a dry run in style for Roxy's own 'Avalon' album that would appear the following year. The main problem here is Ferry himself. Despite a latter day reputation as a lounge lizard type ballad crooner, there is always something of a sneer in his voice that has never been quite erased. It worked fine, was a virtue even, on Roxy's more cynical, discordant early output, but the straight ahead love songs that made his fortune just don't ring true and puts me in mind of a top drawer soul singer a operating Ferry like a ventriloquist's dummy, but with the lack of lip movement putting the brakes on the true soul and emotion coming out. In Ferry's hands, the "I'm sorry that I made you cry" sounds more like a distraction than truly heartfelt, almost as if he's singing it to that sex doll from 'In Every Dream Home A Heartache' rather than to a living person, rendering the performance more art for art's sake than anything else. This version of the song is fine as far as it goes, and they meant well, but why would anybody want to listen to it when you can have Lennon's original?

1981 Joe Dolce Music Theatre: Shaddap You Face

'Shaddap You Face' is now probably better known as the answer to the classic pub quiz question 'What Song Kept 'Vienna' Off The Number One Spot', as if some noteworthy injustice had been done which, like the antics of the Nazis, must never be forgotten.*  Whether or not you agree with that is a moot point, but anyway - what exactly do we get with the Joe Dolce Music Theatre? An American born, Australian dweller who a tooka onna da Chico Marx faux Italian character but forgot to steal the humour to go with it. That's what. Fair play, I can imagine Chico telling Harpo to 'Shaddap You Face' in any one of their films, but he'd justa sayit da once and then move on to other business. Dolce, on the other hand, stretches his one non joke rather too thinly with the effect that the song actually gets less and less amusing as it rattles on, and the intervening years have not added anything to the party; merely a vehicle to poke fun at foreign stereotypes, it wasn't funny then and it isn't funny now. Still, Midge's face was a picture.

* 'Vienna' was voted Britain's favourite single to ever peak at number two in the charts in a 2012 poll run by the BBC and was awarded an honorary number one by the OCC. What is conveniently forgotten though (or perhaps never mentioned) is that John Lennon's 'Woman' was number one for the first week of 'Vienna's runner up residence.The inference here, of course, is that there's no shame in being beaten by a dead former Beatle. Again, whether or not you agree with that is another moot point.

1981 John Lennon: Woman

Lennon's first posthumous single release and another number one, though you could be forgiven for thinking it sounds pretty much like the last one; speed up the backing track to 'Imagine' and you could happily sing 'Woman' over the top of it. But whilst the latter is a solid enough effort, 'Woman' is a rather lame and insipid affair.

Obviously dedicated to Ono (though Lennon has said it was meant for all women), 'Woman' simpers for forgiveness and understanding at the foot of a female wronged, though the repeated use of 'woman' (with a clear full stop after it) to start each verse as a means of getting her attention sounds rather derogatory and patronising and only serves to undermine whatever contrition that's being expressed, making the whole thing sound hollow with any emotion at least two steps detached.

Unlike Lennon's own previous declaration of love for his wife in 'Oh Yoko', there is nothing intimately playful about this po-faced dirge that so obviously aspires to high drama yet crashes and burns in a welter of pretentious phrasing and forced rhymes that makes it sound like Lennon is reading directly from a 'How To Win Your Wife Back' manual;
"Woman, I can hardly express, my mixed emotions at my thoughtlessness. After all I'm forever in your debt. And woman, I will try to express, my inner feelings and thankfulness". For God's sake man, just tell her you're sorry and be done with it.

1981 John Lennon: Imagine

Let's be honest, any review of 'Imagine' in 1981 is a review of  sentiment rather than the song. As a single, 'Imagine' only managed a number six position on first release in 1975 and it was only the tide of grief after Lennon's murder that put this back in the charts at number one - to the record company's credit, it wasn't re-issued as a cash in but was bought in sufficient quantities to put it there by itself. Saying that, it was re-issued in 1999 where it managed to get to number three - this may have been a cash in, but it's a pretty impressive history for one song.

'Imagine', like Dylan's equally iconic 'Blowing In The Wind' before it, is a simple, stripped down tune on which is hung a narrative of imagery vivid enough to both disguise the underlying naivety of the content and also to stick in the mind on first listen. '
Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try ' - a simple enough statement of intent, but in the hymnal context of the song it generates enough gravitas of cod philosophy to make you think you're listening to something profound, yet similar again to the Dylan song, the first impressions tend to be the deepest and neither gain in depth with repeated plays.

And what of the much mocked '
Imagine no possessions' - how can a multi millionaire sing that and still keep a straight face? Yet remarkably it was Bono who (in 'God Part 2') seemed tuned in to Lennon's predicament when he sang: "I don't believe in excess, success is to give. I don't believe in riches but you should see where I live". Then again, just as where Proudhon's 'All property is theft' statement has been misunderstood from the almost the second it was written, Lennon himself defended the line in his 1980 Playboy interview by saying "The Buddhist says 'get rid of the possessions of the mind'. Walking away from all the money would not accomplish that. It's like the Beatles. I couldn't walk away from the Beatles. That's one possession that's still tagging along, right? If I walk away from one house or 400 houses, I'm not gonna escape it."

But it's pointless to debate lines in splendid isolation here; 'Imagine' is bigger than that and can defend itself* When all the dust has settled though,
it matters not a jot what I or anyone else says about it now, it has transcended all that and no amount of bad press or hissy criticism is ever going to make it go away - 'Imagine' has now become a Gothic Victorian marble headstone replete with (depending on your stance) ornately carved angels or gargoyles, a single point of reference to mark the fact to later generations that a man called Lennon had once been alive. If I have to wrap this up with some kind of conclusion, then let it be that It's a solid song and nothing more, occupying a mid-table spot in Lennon's output; he produced far better and far worse songs than this in his lifetime, and since his death the track has deserved neither the extreme plaudits or scorn it has garnered.

* A far bigger stick to beat Lennon with would be the accompanying video that saw him all in white, a Christ-like figure at a white piano in a white draped room with Yoko moping around five paces behind him like a concubine. A scene just crying out for Jarvis Cocker to burst through a window and start shaking his arse.