Saturday, 21 March 2009

1982 Renee & Renato: Save Your Love

In which Bob Carolgees' portly brother with a nice line in V neck sweaters (Renato) serenades his belle (Renee) in a faux Italian operatic Italian who honks back in a sharp and shearing English accent that aims for American but ends up falling in the drink somewhere mid Atlantic.

The overall effect is the sound of two underoiled and badly misaligned gears crunching together over a rinky dink Hammond organ beat and an atomically over the top string arrangement that follows the basic melody as faithfully as a guide dog leads its master. Yes it's horrible, and the accompanying video showed the duo playing it worryingly straight with no sense of irony (in a 'just one Cornetto' kind of way) - they were actually taking this seriously and that in itself somehow makes it all the worse.

Or rather it would if the woman in the video actually was Renee. Or Hilary Lester as her mother knows her. Because it's not - the girl in the video is an anonymous model because old Hilary was 'too busy with other projects' to promote this load of nonsense and only climbed on board the bandwagon when it went top twenty. Such a mercenary attitude does not make this any more endearing.

1982 The Jam: Beat Surrender

And so the end of The Jam came with a bang and a whimper. A bang in that Weller's announcement of the break up of the band when they were at the top of their game was as sudden as it was unexpected. A whimper in that 'Beat Surrender' is not their finest hour and was probably carried to number one more on a wave of sentiment than it's inherent quality.

It was a fateful sign that the final single from The Jam was a toss up between this and 'Solid Bond In Your Heart'. The latter went on to become a single from the 'what Weller did next' Style Council, but it's clear that in 1982 he'd outgrown the punk/new wave genre that nurtured him and that his aspirations lay in a more soul based direction and it's telling that, in all the contemporary promotional footage of this song, Weller is dressed more like a French student than the sharp mod of old.

To that end at least, 'Beat Surrender' follows their previous 'A Town Called Malice' by being delivered in a horn blasting, foot stomping Northern Soul wrapper which powers from 0-60 in a matter of seconds from the brief piano led introduction and barely draws breath until the fade out.

At close on three and a half minutes, it's longer than the majority of the band's singles , though ironically it has the least to say. As far as the lyrics go, they act as a goodbye of sorts - that is, a goodbye to The Jam and an embracing of whatever the future might bring:
"All the things that I care about (are packed into one punch). All the things that I'm not sure about (are sorted out at once). And as it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end, that bullshit is bullshit, it just goes by different names"

It's as well to spell out them out here because the muddy production and mumbled vocal makes what Weller is saying incredibly difficult to make out. It's almost as if he's too lethargic and fed up with it all to enunciate his lines clearly, leaving Bruce Foxton to belt out his side of the call and response exchange as if his life depended on it. Which, as he was staring the dole queue in the face, he probably felt it did at the time and perhaps this was his way of trying to convince Weller that there was still fight in the old dog yet. In any event, they are of virtually secondary consideration to the blatant hook of the chorus:
"Come on boy, come on girl. Succumb to the beat surrender", a couplet that tries hard to swing and swing but falls just shy of connecting with a clean punch, and it's constant, constant repetition makes it sound more forced than free, leaving it frustratingly unsatisfying in an 'is that it'? kind of way. Sure the rolling piano and thick brass interludes generate a party atmosphere, but you just know that Weller wasn't trying all that hard by this stage and 'Beat Surrender' falls well short of past glories. There's no doubt that the passing of The Jam marked the end of an era, and few bands who have had the same level of success have ended so suddenly and definitively. In hindsight, the symbolism is potent; it's almost as if the curtain was finally being brought down on the seventies and the eighties were now free to begin in earnest.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

1982 Eddy Grant: I Don't Wanna Dance

If 1982 had been a bumper year a German presence in the UK charts, then reggae wasn't doing too badly either; 'I Don't Wanna Dance' completes a hat trick of number ones of British artists recording within the genre. Guyana born Grant had been here before in 1968 with The Equals and 'Baby Come Back', and in the true style of that other great eighties phenomena 'Transformers' it's fair to say that it would not take too many replaced or modified parts to transform that earlier song into the current one; 'I Don't Wanna Dance' runs on a similarly solid four on the floor backbeat that owes more to Chuck Berry than Lee Perry with an underlying tune that is almost interchangeable.

Though saying that, unlike 'Baby Come Back' where the verses aimed to build to a tension relieving chorus, here Grant latches on to his tune from the off and hangs on 'till the end, ploughing the same furrow throughout with a tunnel vision that gives the overall impression of being dropped into the middle of something that is either one long series of verses without a chorus, or simply just one long chorus. Whatever, it soon grates and even an uncharacteristically (for reggae anyway) zippy guitar solo does nothing to raise the interest bar. The pissed off looking girl in the accompanying video provides the perfect response to Eddy's serenading and her bored and pained expressions review this better than a thousand words.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

1982 Culture Club: Do You Really Want To Hurt Me

In 1982, Culture Club came as a package, not so much as band identity but in that it was impossible to separate their music from the six feet of androgynous max Max Factored camp that was George O'Dowd. Media interest was focused more on his sexuality (or lack of it) and the music generally played second fiddle to the image. That observation can be said about a lot of eighties bands, but in Culture Club it seemed to reach its natural peak.

"Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" is a gentle, lovers rock ballad that seemed a natural heir to the number one slot after Musical Youth. An international hit, what strikes the listener after the passage of time is just how far George's voice carries the song on it's shoulders. The all important bass and rhythm section associated with the genre are buried under the strident vocal that carves out both the melody and rhythm of the track with confidence. There's none of the groin level bass throb of a Gregory Isaacs or John Holt tune to keep things moving, and take George's vocal track away and you're left with a straight and rather limp beat that muzak fans would regard as a bit dull.

But to it's credit, the vocal melody is a strong one, and the constant running up and down the scales provides welcome distraction from the frankly incomprehensible lyrics that boil down to a series of almost random phrases that amount to far less than they aspire to:

"Precious kisses, words that burn me

Lovers never ask you why

In my heart the fires burning

Choose my colour, find a star"

George could have sung this in Esperanto and it would have had little detrimental impact on the overall effect because the verses didn't matter - the kiss off here is the chorus that rang out clear as a bell:

"Do you really want to hurt me

Do you really want to make me cry"

And though plenty of people did in 1982, far more saw George almost as an alien entity, a man out of place and a harmless but vulnerable figure to be loved or mothered (depending on your age). The rest of the band were just so much ballast.

Age has not withered "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" a great deal; by sticking to the formula inherent in the genre it has avoided the harsh 'eighties' sound that has brutally date stamped many of its contemporaries and instead, having no original power to blunt, it sounds as smoothly laid back as it did when it was first released. Perhaps more so now as George's power to shock and confuse has long since vanished and the song can be listened to and appreciated on it's own merits without the pantomime window dressing that went with it.

Monday, 16 March 2009

1982 Musical Youth: Pass The Dutchie

If reggae was a rare visitor to the UK charts in the eighties, even rarer was a reggae band composed entirely of schoolboys. Which is what Birmingham's Musical Youth were.

'Pass The Dutchie' is basically a re-working of The Mighty Diamond's 'Pass The Kouchie', though as 'Kouchie' is slang for cannabis, the title was altered to 'Dutchie' to be more in keeping with the age of the band - having a fifteen year old extolling the virtues of drug taking were well beyond the pale in 1982, probably more so than they would be now.

The subtle shift in the lyrics continues through the verses too. Whereas the original had the singer on a mission to score:

"It was a cool and lovely breezy afternoon
(How does it feel when you've got no herb ?)
You could feel it 'cause it was the month of June
(If you got no herb you will walk an' talk)"

Musical Youth extended the 'cooking pot' idea to turn the song into a less threatening but more socially aware description of poverty and hunger:

"It was a cool and lonely breezy afternoon

(How does it feel when you've got no food ?)
You could feel it 'cause it was the month of June
(How does it feel when you've got no food ?)"

And the changes aren't just lyrical. While The Mighty Diamonds track is laid back to the point of the inertia with the band sounding baked to the gills on weed, Musical Youth update the standard reggae template and add a far more sprightly, almost rap, almost Nu Yorican feel to the tune, pulling in contemporary ethnic influences that reach out further than Jamaica.

Subtle touches and overdubs like the strategically placed steel drum fills and a powerful, almost metallic drum overbeat make this shimmer and sparkle like sunshine on water. Cover version it may be, but it's a cover version that's been overhauled and re-fitted to the point where it becomes something original in it's own right and Dennis Seaton's opening shouted call to arms:

"This generation

Rules the nation
With version"

Could have easily prefaced a Public Enemy track.

Musical and youthful, the song lives up to it's name quite wonderfully and it's only the subsequent knowledge that the promise here was never fully fulfilled and also of what would become of some of the band that casts a shadow of what is sunshine captured on vinyl.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

1982 Survivor: Eye Of The Tiger

For a generation who were of a certain age in the early eighties, this song will always be the 'Theme From Rocky 3', no more and no less. And why not? Stallone was a fan of the band and commissioned them to write the song specifically for the film. So the question is whether 'Eye Of The Tiger' can stand on it's own two feet without Rocky to prop it up. Well yes....and no.

Yes, in that the song is a solid enough listen with an unusual nagging single note guitar riff opening the track then running through it like a stitch. The double tracked power chords and drum beats add a note of drama and menace which, disappointingly, is never realised with any effect as it soon falls into predictable 4/4 line as it gathers pace. The lyrics though are suitably removed from the world of pugilism to transcend their source and provide inspiration to anyone with their back against the wall:

"Risin' up, straight to the top

Have the guts, got the glory
Went the distance, now I'm not gonna stop
Just a man and his will to survive "

No, in that 'Eye Of The Tiger' is more light than heavyweight in the rock stakes. Whilst the UK in 1982 had the likes of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden running riot under the NWOBHM banner, the Americans were getting off on an FM diet of soft pop/rock sounds courtesy of Foreigner, Journey, REO Speedwagon et al whose combined record collections didn't seem to stretch any further than the first Boston album.

Survivor are a typically square peg to sit aside these square holes, and for all their fighting talk, bluster and streetwise swagger the band show on the video, 'Eye Of The Tiger' now sounds too tired to fight it's way out of a paper bag. At least not when compared with something like 'Ace Of Spades' released two years earlier which still sounds like someone repeatedly slamming your head against a brick wall. Maybe that's not what Survivor were 'about', but as they were soundtracking a boxing film, then maybe they should have been.

Hearing 'Eye Of The Tiger' now will always bring a warm feeling to those who remember it first time round, and the urge to throw shadow punches to those power chords at the start is still well nigh irresistible. The remainder will wonder what all the fuss is about.

1982 Dexy's Midnight Runners: Come On Eileen

After achieving critical and commercial success with their 'Young Soul Rebel' image and music, frontman Kevin Rowland pulled the rug out from under expectant fans by switching tack and adopting an Irish Gypsy, Celtic folk model for their next album.

Opening with a reel played on a Celtic fiddle, the many key and tempo changes throughout 'Come On Eileen' make it an unlikely wedding party staple, and it's meaning is obscure as a Picasso on first listen. But there's no denying that from the off, something intense and something exciting is afoot and Rowland soon pulls you in to his tale of a youthful attempt to charm a girl out of her clothes at the point where liking someone turns to lust:

"Ah come on let's take off everything,

That pretty red dress Eileen
Ah come on let's, ah come on Eileen, please".

'Come On Eileen' is almost impressionistic, a Monet set to music. The whole piece is structured so as to be a snapshot of a time and place populated by hints of memories and emotions that aren't meant to be nailed down or carved in marble. Indeed, the music is drawn from varied sources; the opening fiddle motif is the Irish song 'Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms', while the chorus is loosely based on 'A Man Like Me' by the Jimmy James and the Vagabonds.

Nevertheless, the end product more than exceeds the sum of these parts and instead of some stitched together Frankenstein monster of borrowed phrases, 'Come On Eileen' drips with the excited promise of teenage sex, a 'Teenage Kicks' as imagined by a nineteenth century Romany troupe if you like.

As a celebration of being arrogantly young, it's almost without peer; growing old is not on the cards for Rowland or Eileen, it simply could not happen:

"These people round here wear beaten down eyes

Sunk in smoke dried faces they're so resigned to what their fate is,

But not us, no not us we are far too young and clever"

Which maybe goes some way to show that the message in The Specials' earlier 'Too Much Too Young' will always fall on deaf ears.

What everybody remembers about 'Come On Eileen' (and what gets the parents out on the dancefloor) is the bridge. Here, the band call a sudden halt and begin a slow burning counter melody that increases with speed and intensity with each passing bar to build into a climax when the main theme kicks back in to defuse the tension and any dancefloor erupts to the sound of stamping feet.

Personally, I've always thought that Rowland missed a trick here in that the ending is resolved too quickly and the band comes back too soon. With just one more bar it could have built into the perfect orgasm instead of almost falling flat as a premature ejaculation - if Rowland was making another comment on teenage sex here then he did a damn fine job!

Thursday, 12 March 2009

1982 Irene Cara: Fame

Recorded in 1980 as for the soundtrack of the eponymous film, 'Fame' didn't get a single release in the UK until two years later when the TV series it also soundtracked took off.

For a song celebrating an Academy of music and dance, 'Fame' is a surprisingly limp listen. Instead of some James Brown type funky walking bassline, the backbone of the song is driven by a blaring keyboard riff that struggles to impose any kind of structure on the track and it's not helped by the pretty feeble programmed drums that are buried well down in the mix.

Ultimately, it's reliant on Cara's classic gospel shout to maintain order, making it just as well that 'Fame' is essentially one big shouty chorus on auto repeat for virtually the whole running time of the song. There are verses there, but Cara can't wait to rush through them to get to the chorus which kicks in after barely twenty five seconds. And it's a laser guided nuclear missile of a chorus that every man, woman and child will instantly recognise:

"Remember my name

I'm gonna live forever
I'm gonna learn how to fly"

Hell, even your dog would know it and be able to sing along. Inspirational and aspirational, 'Fame' in 1982 possessed a positive message that everyman could relate to and the song had an existence outside the context of the New York High School of Performing Arts storyline.

Hearing it again in the twenty first century though, you can't help but be reminded of the recent vogue for endless TV talent and reality shows where media hungry wannabes struggle to achieve fame for it's own sake regardless of talent, and this pursuit dilutes the message of the song somewhat by altering its meaning to modern sensibilities as surely as it would if some wag decided to use 'Blowing In The Wind' in a baked beans commercial.

But you can blame neither the writers nor Cara for the foibles of modern life that have made 'Fame' a song out of time. No such considerations applied in 1982 where the track won an Academy Award for best original song, and 'Fame' is probably best remembered and best appreciated in it's proper context - a song as 'eighties' as legwarmers and pastel suits.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

1982 Captain Sensible: Happy Talk

What odds at the start of the year on the bassist from a seemingly defunct punk band scoring a number one with a cover of Rogers and Hammerstein? If that wasn't surprising enough, the good Captain catches us all unawares by not taking the path of least resistance by speeding this up into a fast, loud thrash like fellow punks The Dickies ('Nights In White Satin') or The Toy Dolls ('Nellie The Elephant') might have but instead staying faithful to the original and playing it straight down the middle.

As faithful as he could that is - as jovial as the Captain is, he couldn't recite the phone book without making it sarcastic and his arch delivery on this makes for a bittersweet listen (though maybe that's needed to offest the overly girly squeals from the backing 'Dolly Mixtures') and in so doing adds sufficient edge to raise this just above the level of novelty.

The problem with 'Happy Talk' as a song is that it's a bit of a one trick pony that doesn't really bear too many repeated listens. It works well in the context of the 'South Pacific' musical as a bridge in the storyline, but it's a bit isolated when taken out of context and the Captain's version outstays it's welcome by a good minute.
Ah but it's easy to forgive it's tardiness in leaving due to the sheer good nature and inoffensiveness of it all when it arrives, and as long as you have a bottle in one hand while the other does the hand movements, then the time flies by.

Monday, 9 March 2009

1982 Charlene: I've Never Been To Me

In which a one time good time girl retires from a life of putting it about and ruminates on what it is she has got from it all. Charlene Marilynn Oliver was a white Californian R&B singer who signed to Motown in 1973 and neither the singer nor the song are exactly representative of what Motown was all about; this is less the sound of young America and more the sound of an embittered old whore.

A strange subject matter for a pop song perhaps, you can imagine Jaques Brel writing something similar for an Edith Piaf to break down over (and which probably would have ended with the narrator chucking herself in the Seine), but whereas Piaf famously had no regrets, Charlene has them by the bucketful:

"I moved liked Harlow in Monte Carlo and showed 'em what I've got
I've been undressed by kings and I've seen some things
That a woman ain't supposed to see
I've been to paradise
But I've never been to me"

Well bless.

The problem is though that Charlene has none of the emotional rawness or honesty of a Piaf to pull it off. She was just 32 when she recorded this and her breathless, goody goody tones sound like they'd be more at home coming out of the back of a Barbie doll rather than a mature woman expressing regrets over a wasted life. Instead of bitter, she comes across like an airhead whining about a bad hair day.

So what's the message here? Well it seems that hedonism and pleasing yourself is all very well but it won't fulfil your life the way getting married and having kids will:

"Hey, you know what paradise is?

It's a lie, a fantasy we create about people and places as we'd like them to be
But you know what truth is?
It's that little baby your holding
And it's that man you fought with this morning
The same one you're going to make love with tonight
That's truth, that's love "

Charlene speaks these words in a golly gosh tone that sounds all rather patronising. Rather than regret, she sounds like she's telling her mates that when she 'sipped champagne on a yacht' she'd have much rather having been cooking dinner for her bloke whilst up to her elbows in shitty nappies and that she'd swap placed with them anytime. Rather than express sympathy, I don't personally know too many women who wouldn't want to stick a knife in her after delivering that little bon mot of wisdom. And maybe somebody did because Charlene never troubled the charts again.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

1982 Adam Ant: Goody Two Shoes

Shortly after the 'Prince Charming' album, Adam broke up the Ants (though crucially keeping guitarist Marco Pirroni on board) and launched an ultimately short lived solo career with this as it's first single. Adam's stock was so high in 1982 that he could have released any old tripe and scored a major hit, but he didn't, and far from being tripe, 'Goody Two Shoes' is a worthy wearer of it's number one crown.

The lyrics here deal with Adam's disillusionment with the media intrusion he suffered with the Ants and the role model persona that was unwillingly thrust upon him. As far as that particular angle goes, methinks that Mr Goddard doth protest too much. You only have to watch him pouting and preening through the video to this for evidence that he was no retiring wallflower and he could have found himself on a very sticky wicket if
'Goody Two Shoes' turned out to be some earnest, string drenched dirge. But it isn't. And far from it.

'Goody Two Shoes' reminds me of a Ready, Steady Cook scenario, though instead of having a carrot, a block of lard and some biscuits and then being told to make a gourmet meal out of it, Adam was given a drum, a one string guitar and a trumpet and told to come up with a hit song. Which he did.

Though the ethnic twin drum attack of the Ants had been left behind, 'Goody Two Shoes' is propelled along with a ferocious and unrelenting drumbeat that's more Taiko than Burundi with the aforementioned guitar picking out a simple rockabilly riff to compliment it. All the while, some glorious bursts of salsa-like brass drop in and out of the mix and keep the party fervour to the fore. On paper, it reads like a mess and it is simple enough to be sure, but whenever things threaten to get stale, a simple key change or dropped beat acts like a new coat of paint and keeps it fresh right to the end.

'Goody Two Shoes' is a barnstormer of a track, different enough from his previous recordings to warrant the 'solo artist' tag, yet familiar enough to ensure that no long time fan feels left out of the party. It would also be Adam's last appearence to date at the top of the charts.

Friday, 6 March 2009

1982 Madness: House Of Fun

One of the quintessential singles bands, Madness created their own 'nutty sound' by combining straight Jamaican ska with a knockabout English music hall style and humour.

Although not averse to social or political commentary of their own, the main agenda of Madness was always to cock a wry snook at the ludicrousness of modern life, a stance that gave them legs well beyond the lifespan of the majority of the bands that emerged from Two Tone movement. And nowhere is this more evident on 'House Of Fun'.

Ostensibly a tale of a young man called Joe reaching the age of consent and trying to buy some condoms at his local chemist, 'House Of Fun' belts along at a cracking 126 beats per minute in a breakneck way that's maybe symbolic of the thrill being sixteen and on the verge of losing your virginity? Or maybe symbolic of the panicked heartbeat embarrassment of trying to buy condoms for the first time but not wanting to ask for them outright?

But symbolism? Pah! Who cares? 'House Of Fun' is a blast from start to finish, and besides, ska always was directed at the feet rather than the head. In fact, it only pauses for breath when the (adult) chemist 'speaks' to put the mockers on the Joe's excitement:

"I'm sorry son but we don't stock

Party gimmicks in this shop"

But it's short lived, and our hero is soon back to his jaunty best and giving the chemist some very British lip:

"Party hats, simple enough clear

Comprehende savvy understand - do you hear"?

Though his new found cockiness is soon deflated when local gossip 'Miss Clay' enters the shop:

"Too late! Gorgon heard gossip

Well hello Joe, hello Miss Clay, many happy returns from the day"

And therein lies the genius of the song; the whole vignette of this boy's experience is told and wrapped up in less than three minutes, but in a way that is timeless and as 'I remember that feeling' relevant today as the day it was written. And even if you never did have that experience, you can recognise lads like Joe in any street in the country. Those other great observers of British life in song Ray Davies or Paul McCartney could not have done better. And in the 1980's at least, they didn't.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

1982 Nicole: A Little Peace

As pre-warned, completing 1982's trio of Teutonic chart toppers comes Nicole Hohloch with 'A Little Peace'.

"A little sunshine, a sea of gladness
To wash away all the tears of sadness
A little hoping, a little praying,
For our tomorrow, a little peace"

It's not Christmas, so with a chorus like that it can only mean one thing - Eurovision. Sure enough, 'A Little Peace' won the Eurovision Song Contest that year for Germany, which was not only a first (and last to date) for the country, it also won by a record sixty one points.

'A Little Peace' is a gentle, mandolin led balladic plea for world peace that is essentially 'Imagine' lite. Or even - whisper it - 'Imagine' without the pretension. In tone and style it's almost a song out of time, sounding more like a Continental hit from the late sixties than the eighties (you could easily imagine Francois Hardy or a young Marianne Faithful singing this) and the natural sound and 'proper' instruments are nothing if not refreshing in the context of what was in the chart around it.

Sure it has the 'stigma' of Eurovision all over it which has damned it in the eyes of posterity, but I'm sure that in a blind taste test where such prejudices didn't apply then more people would be charmed by it than not, especially if they saw the endearing image of
eighteen year old Nicole performing it like a rabbit caught in a juggernaut's headlights on Top Of The Pops.

What spoils the party here is that, being originally written in German, the English verses get lost in translation somewhat - Nicole tries her hardest to make the chorus scan properly, but it just doesn't, and I can only assume that clodhopping lyrics like:

"I feel I'm a leaf in the mound on the snow

I fell to the ground, there was no-one below"

were rather more poetic in their native tongue.

'A Little Peace' was a one hit wonder for Nicole and she never had another UK chart entry. And one last point of trivia in an entry riddled with trivia, 'A Little Peace' was the 500th UK number one.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

1982 Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder: Ebony & Ivory

Ah - Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder; the names alone should send a shiver down the spine. The pedigree of this pair cannot be denied and it will be there for all those who appreciate music to enjoy for as long as their earlier recordings exist. But coming from such radically opposite musical directions and backgrounds, even on paper, the pairing must have raised eyebrows in 1982 and it's telling that 'Ebony and Ivory' is a solo McCartney composition with Wonder's only contribution being his vocal. And it shows. By god it shows.

The idea of using inanimate objects to demonstrate racial harmony is not a new one to the UK charts. In 1971, Greyhound reached number six with 'Black And White', a song that everyone will know even if they've never heard of the artist:

"The ink is black
, the page is white
Together we learn to read and write".

Trite it may be, but Greyhound's humorous reggae shuffle presents the imagery in an accessible and appealing way that sticks in the mind after the song has finished. Messer's Wonder and McCartney, however, deliver their 'message' with the studious air of a philosophy lecturer discussing a proposition from Wittgenstein. Lines like

"We all know that people are the same where ever we go

There is good and bad in everyone"

are delivered in a straight, humourless way that suggests they believe these observations are unique to them and the rest of us are fools for not realising it sooner. The sentiment is laudable, but sentiment needn't be sentimental:

"Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony

Side by side on my piano keyboard, oh lord, why don't we"?

It all just boils down to a handwringing plea of 'why can't we all just be friends', and this from the man who wrote 'Penny Lane'.

Musically, McCartney is all over this and it's steeped in the minor key, bland synth washes and plodding 'behind the beat' drums that sum up most of his eighties output. There's a ghastly, tuneless bass solo in there too just to emphasise who's in charge here.

It's as professional and as slick as you'd expect, but it's also tedious, completely uninteresting and all rather hollow. Barely even a song, 'Ebony and Ivory' is brief sketch of an idea dressed up and stretched out into a full size oil canvas.
The whole thing seems to come to a natural end about ninety seconds in when the ideas clearly run out (the lyrics quoted above are virtually all there is to it), and the second half is almost a straight run through of the same thing again. On that basis, they could have exponentially lengthened the song to prog length, and we should be praise any god you like that they didn't.

The criminal thing about all this of course is that it marks the first time the Wonder ever topped the UK charts. What's more criminal is that with all the drek that he was still to dish out, this wouldn't be McCartney's last.

Monday, 2 March 2009

1982 Bucks Fizz: My Camera Never Lies

In which Bucks Fizz grow up. Or at least try to. It seems to be an unwritten rule that every pop band who achieve a level of success with some happy, harmless ramalama singalongs will at some point aspire to some artistic credibility in a bid to be taken seriously. Most end up falling flat on their face, and if Bucks Fizz don't exactly end up face down in the gutter, they stumble over their laces quite badly and bloody their hands and knees.

There's probably no better example of a pop band who grew up in public to successfully outgrow their roots than ABBA, and whoever was behind 'My Camera Never Lies' obviously had one eye on the Swedish model in a bid to crack the international market. This is no less apparent in the video that clearly apes the 'Take A Chance On Me' visuals with Jay in particular giving the camera the scary evil eye of a woman wronged.

Starting out with earthereal vocal 'Ahhhhsss' that builds into an urgent, acoustic guitar driven verse, the sound is very new wave, very American AOR and very, very eighties - think The Cars' 'Drive' giving a lift to Pat Benatar's 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot' and you won't go far wrong. Lyrically too we're in darker territory than previous with a theme of a would be lover stalking someone who doesn't want to know (
"I’ve been checking you up, I’ve been tracking you down. Funny all the things that I’ve found").

So far, so different, but then the chorus arrives from straight out of a cheap Christmas cracker and undoes all the good work that's gone before. All pretence of intensity and seriousness vanishes in a puff of smoke to be replaced by a shift in tone to a tacky white bread singalong that even Dollar would have rejected as being corny. By trying to appeal to a new, older market while not forgetting the millions who bought 'Making Your Mind Up', 'My Camera Never Lies' aims for two separate stools and misses both by a wide margin.

Ultimately, 'My Camera Never Lies' is all smoke and mirrors, making it rather apt that 'The Wizard Of Oz' is parodied in the accompanying video. It puts on a brave face to try and get in the ring with the heavyweights, but like some Scooby Doo episode where the mask is pulled off the scary ghost to reveal some harmless old woman underneath, it's all just a front to add some gravitas to what is essentially business as usual.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

1982 Goombay Dance Band: Seven Tears

Now here's something - Kraftwerk were the first German band to ever top the UK charts, and now barely a few weeks later we had another one (astonishingly, there would soon be another to complete the hat trick, but more of that later).

Throughout the latter part of the seventies, there was a rivalry of sorts between the UK's Brotherhood Of Man (in their own minds at least) and Abba. Both had won Eurovision and both went on to release further hit singles with the Brotherhood's 'Angelo' ripping off Abba's 'Fernando' in a such a shameless manner that the Swede's lawyers must have been poised to pounce. But if Abba were top notch IKEA, the Brotherhood were most definitely chipboard cupboards from MFI with a few panels and screws missing.

I make the comparison because the moment 'Seven Tears' opens with those interminable 'Mmmmmmmmms' and then that plodding 4/4 drum beat, then Boney M's 'Rivers Of Babylon' springs immediately to mind. Also German, Boney M were a spent force by 1982, but the men behind this Goombay band clearly thought there were more miles to be had from this multi racial, happy clappy Euro beat engine yet.

'Goombay' is a variation of drum based music from the Bahamas that is played in a celebratory style, but while there was always a wondrous sense of humour and unpredictability about everything Boney M did, there is precious little celebratory or varied about 'Seven Tears'.

For the whole duration of the track, the rhythm and beat does not change one iota and it plods it's way dirge-like from start to finish in the manner of a hymn sung at a school assembly that has been rearranged by the trendy music teacher to try and make it more relevant to 'ver kids'. Any goodwill you may have felt toward it is ground down by the sheer monotony.

And if that wasn't enough, the lead singer, who manages to look like both Roger de Courcey AND Nookie Bear at the same time, blandly warbles the lyrics of tears running to the sea with all the emotion of a man whose first language is not English and is instead singing phonetically without the first idea of what he's on about. And he probably doesn't. I know I don't:

"Lonely like a stranger on the shore.

I can't stand this feeling anymore.
Day by day this world's all grey

And if dreams were eagles I would fly"

Unfortunately, dreams are not eagles and this is not a good song in any sense of the word. As lucky a number one as you'll ever hear, their luck soon ran out and the Goombay Dance Band did not trouble the British charts again.

1982 Tight Fit: The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Following a long tradition of jerry built bands knocked up to front a surprise hit single, Tight Fit were created purely to publicly perform this version of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' that producer Tim Friese-Greene (who went on to better things with Talk Talk and Thomas Dolby) had recorded with some anonymous session singers. Incidentally, the line up of this Tight Fit had no overlap with the previous version of Tight Fit who recorded the two 'Back To The Sixties' medleys the year before.

Confused? Perhaps. But there's no need to be, and there's no need to be overly critical of manufactured bands either - the song is the thing here and your reaction to this will depend on what you think of it. Written by South African Zulu musician Solomon Linda in 1939, its had a chequered history dogged by lawsuits, copyright issues and mishearings of the lyrics, leading Karl Denver to have a hit with a version called 'Wimoweh' in 1962 which remains the standard reference point for subsequent versions.

The version by 'Tight Fit' does not rock the boat in any way - lyrics, tune and general African feel are faithfully re-created with some rather fine sounding djembe drums being needlessly overlaid by some telltale 'eighties' electronic beats and phasing on the chorus. There's even some squawking bird and chimp effects lest anyone forget we are we in African territory here. Nothing wrong with that I guess.

Bottom line, it's a faithfull enough version that was a staple of any school disco worth it's salt for a few years after and in many ways it encapsulates the eighties for anyone who wasn't there and think it was ten years of big hair and bright colours - if you liked the song before then you'll like this. If you didn't, then Tight Fit are not going to convert anyone.

1982 The Jam: A Town Called Malice

Paul Weller had never made a secret of his passion for Northern Soul and classic Motown recordings, and in 'A Town Called Malice' he manages to pay homage to both (and to the Wigan Casino which closed its doors for good the previous year) whilst kicking against the pricks of a right wing government hell bent on inflicting social misery and injustice on the perceived enemy within - the working classes.

In 'A Town Called Malice', Weller paints a vivid picture of his contemporary Woking home town that manages to distil both essence and substance of the writings of the 'Angry Young Men' of the 1950's who described and railed against the social and political alienation of their times. Though updated by thirty years, Weller's defiantly left wing stance shows a world that has little changed:
"A whole streets belief in Sunday's roast beef, gets dashed against the co-op. To either cut down on beer or the kids new gear, it's a big decision in a town called malice".

Arthur Seaton would have recognised those streets, Jo from 'A Taste Of Honey' would have appreciated that decision. And that was exactly Weller's point, and it was a point made with a startlingly evocative clarity in the couplet:
"Rows and rows of disused milk floats stand dying in the dairy yard. And a hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts. Hanging out their old love letters on
the line to dry"
. John Osbourne or Shelagh Delaney would have been pleased to have come up with lines of optimistic hopelessness as good, and yet the lyrics are only half the story here; as politicised as Weller undoubtedly was, he's savvy enough to know that his diatribe would change nothing and that a message reaches a wider audience when it comes gift wrapped with a bow: "I could go on for hours and I probably will, but I'd sooner put some joy back in this town called malice". And the music here is truly a joy.

From the opening lift of
'You Can't Hurry Love's bassline (albeit now plucked out with a masonary nail) to the 'thin wild mercury sound' organ swirl, drum fills and handclaps, 'A Town Called Malice' swings like a motherfucker and does not let up until close less than three minutes later. A short, sharp shock of a tune, it manages to sound ferociously modern and reassuringly traditional in its structure. You could remove the vocal track in it's entirety and what remains would be no less effective at filling a dancefloor, and there's something smugly subversive about mixing anger with such good time music that hits home harder than any number of hardcore punk acts screaming over a three chord thrash. 'A Town Called Malice' captures The Jam at their peak in terms of writing and playing, and at 2.52 long with a killer B side in 'Precious', it was as classic a 45 that had been released to date. Yet hindsight shows it couldn't last; Weller knew he was recycling ideas and recycling music within the current set up. The band were fast losing its effectiveness as a conduit for his vision and soon they would be no more.

1982 Kraftwerk: The Model

For my money, the genius of Kraftwerk was their ability to render precise, mathematical electronic music into something fluid; music that is all French curves rather than set squares and in practical terms it's the difference between the lumbering T-101 Terminator sounds of lesser bands and the smooth liquid T-1000 model that can shape itself to its environment. Which is what 'The Model' did in the musical landscape of 1982, despite being a four year old album track originally intended as the B side to 'Computer Love'.

In the Kraftwerk canon, 'The Model' is fairly unique in that it's quite short and utilises the traditional common structure of popular music. Allegedly inspired by Ralf Hutter's obsession for model Christa Becker, 'The Model' describes the lifestyle of the eponymous female in a stalkerish yet detached third person manner.

Unlike, say, 'Tainted Love', 'The Model' does not sound like someone singing over an electronic backing. In the hands of Kraftwerk, Hutter's dispassionate, emotionless vocals sound like they are emerging from the machines themselves as a by product of them going about the ruthlessly efficient business of producing the music. And it couldn't be any other way:

"She's a model and she's looking good
I'd like to take her home that's understood"

If these lyrics were sung straight then the whole thing would be relegated to ranks of the novelty act, but it's the complete and almost inhuman lack of interest that makes them so interesting. Hutter is casually observing and commenting on an attractive woman in cold machine logic rather than exclaiming 'look at the tits on that babe'.

"I saw her on the cover of a magazine
Now she's a big success, I want to meet her again"

The history of rock and roll is built around various notions of sex and shagging but the attraction here is not sexual, it's rendered almost as scientific fact in much the way that polar ends of a magnet will attract and you simply cannot imagine a Mick Jagger or a Bono or an N.E.Other 'rock star' approaching the subject in anything like the same way.

And being merely human, how could they? Throughout the eighties, Kraftwerk made a virtue of distancing themselves from their human alter egos and pushed the man machine concept to it's limits by sending electronic mannequins of themselves to play live at concerts. And even though Hutter and co went to extreme lengths to exorcise any element of the human condition from their music, what remained pulsed with a life of its own, much like HAL in 2001 A Space Odyssey. And though they sang about robots and computers Kraftwerk's music always throbbed with a human pulse of it's own that was clinical but never cold.

Words like 'innovators' is bandied around far too readily within the realms of popular music where any old rope is put on a pedestal for the easily pleased to worship at, but Kraftwerk are a band for whom it can genuinely be said they gave more to the future than they took from the past. 'The Model' still sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday and both it and the band unwittingly (and probably unwillingly) inspired a great many of the acts who will appear in these lists. 'The Model' is not their best track, not by a long way, but its success and wider recognition cannot be begrudged nor its influence denied.

1982 Shakin' Stevens: Oh Julie

Another Shakin' Stevens single, another obscure-ish cover ver....oh, hang on, it's not. 'Oh Julie' is a bona fide Stevens original. As far as pastiche can be original that is.

Freed from the constraints of covering other people's songs, Steven's doesn't stray too far from the feel good, good time music tree (wouldn't it have been something if he'd gone Goth?), but far enough to replace the backbeat driven R&R rhythm of old with an accordion lead Cajun whirl that wouldn't be out of place soundtracking a barn dance.

For the lyrics, Stevens has taken down his 'Big Boys Book Of Rhyming Words' from the shelf and constructed some verse that any eight year old with learning difficulties would be proud to call their own:

"Whoa Julie, if you love me truly"

"Julie, love me only, Julie, don't be lonely"
"Baby, don't leave me, honey, don't grieve me",

"Stay with me, baby, lay with me maybe" (steady on Shaky!)

and so on, giving the the sneaking suspicion that there never was a girl called Julie and that he just chose the name because it had the most (and most convenient) rhymes.

'Oh Julie' sounds like something that was knocked up in minutes during the sound check and even Stevens' normally excitable delivery sounds more akin to a shoulder shrugging 'will this do' here. And clearly it did do because it got to number one, but I can't for the life of me imagine who would want to listen to this in the privacy of their own homes. Or anywhere really, because it commits the chief cardinal sin of any dancing party song - it's boring as hell.

1982 Bucks Fizz: The Land Of Make Believe

The second number one from the Eurovision winners, 'The Land Of Make Believe' is a surprising departure from the snappy, poppy fayre they'd served up previously. 'Making Your Mind Up' it's not.

Rather, the use of the child's voice and the random and rather surreal lyrics have always reminded me of Traffic's 'Hole In My Shoe'. But whereas Jim Capaldi was describing a leaky boot that was anchoring him to reality through a rather bad acid trip, it's unlikely that any of The Fizz had been breaking out the LSD to record this. So what's it all about?

The verses flow by with a purpose, with the oddly staccato vocals seemingly skipping and building to some great conclusion only to have it fall disappointingly flat at the chorus which doesn't quite make it; 'The land of make believeeeeeeee' just trails off awkwardly, missing a note or a beat or something to resolve it and it feels a bit like a perfect triple back flip marred by a shonky landing.

The lyrics to this were written by Peter Sinfield who had previously provided the words for King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (he wrote "I Believe in Father Christmas" for example) so the man has some pedigree. But his claims that 'The Land Of Make Believe' was an attack on Margaret Thatcher's right wing social policies has to be taken with a cellarfull of salt:


Nasty in your garden's,

Waiting patiently,
'Till it can have your heart"

Maybe. If you look hard enough. And it is a big departure from 'You gotta speed it up, you gotta slow it down", but when the meaning of something is buried so obscurely then it ceases to have any meaning at all, and anybody can see any face in any wallpaper if they look hard enough and want to see it. Far better I think to treat it as a harmless piece of nonsense that borrows quite heavily in tone from Chuck Mangione's own 'Land Of Make Believe' from 1973:

"How I love when my thoughts run to the land of make believe
Where everything is fun forever.
Children always gather around Mother Goose and all her rhyme

They fill the air with sounds of laughter.

Jack and Jill are hard at work helping children dream awhile,
And Snoopy's making smiles for grown-ups"

Yes, quite.

Anyway, part of the problem comes from over analysing I think, in much the way 'Baa Baa Black Sheep loses it's fun and innocence when it's examined for racism. Neither Sinfield nor any of the band were Bob Dylan and to try and impute some great meaning where none exists detracts from the fact that this is a good pop song that, while not built to last, would have aged far better had it not been drenched in some truly awful Linn drum programming. But there are worse crimes to commit in the world of popular music, and in this decade at least. Bucks Fizz are by no means the only band to stand accused of this.