Monday, 13 April 2009

1983 The Flying Pickets: Only You

The Christmas number one spot is traditionally an 'anything goes' state of affairs where the sentiment and general bonhomie of the record buying public often trumps any consideration of taste and decency. It's thrown up a few curious number ones over the years to be sure, but surely none more so than this. A number two hit for Yazoo the previous year, the Flying Pickets went one better by taking their version of 'Only You' to number one and in so doing gave the UK its first accapella chart topper.

By taking away Yazoo's electronic pings and pongs and stripping the song literally down to the words alone, the Flying Pickets manage to add another layer of humanity to the broken storytelling of the lyrics
that are less free flowing words than a collection of phrases randomly generated by a confused and heartbroken mind ("Looking From A Window Above. It's Like A Story Of Love. Can You Hear Me. Came Back Only Yesterday. I'm Moving Further Away. Want You Near Me").

Although Yazoo's Alison Moyet was herself no slouch in soulful interpretations, the aurally abrasive pings synthesiser backing in Yazoo's take rendered this disjointed output almost as computer glitch, some anomaly that deleted every other word either through hardware failure or simply to ensure the lines scanned properly.
By singing acappella, the Flying Pickets bring this confusion to the fore, presenting it more obviously as the outpouring of one who does not know how to articulate what they really want to say, with their own self generated counterpoint harmonies adding the humanity that Yazoo's machines took away.

The quite astonishing video showed the Pickets not in some Sri Lankan marketplace, but in the pub from hell looking for all the world like they are killing time before the balloon goes up for a ruck with a rival 'firm'. There's no attempt to show them as 'pop stars' or anything other than a bunch of ordinary blokes who happen to sing together.The non image is taken even further with lead vocalist Brian Hibbard, dressed for his shift at the factory, delivering his lines direct to the camera with the blank, thousand yard stare of a man just been told his wife, mother and dog have been killed in a motorway pile up with an emotion so raw its painful to watch - the whole thing is the absolute antithesis of what the eighties were meant to be 'about' in terms of sound and vision. What it was doing at number one at Christmastime is anyone's guess.


And yet despite all this, 'Only You' presents me with a bit of a dilemma. For although I rate this highly, I can empathise with those who would regard it as a one off gimmick and hate it in a way that I couldn't if they told me they didn't like (for example), 'Waterloo Sunset'. But rather than intentional novelty, I see this as a glorious fluke, a brave, unselfconscious and dead straight stab at something different that hit the bullseye and would have reached number one no matter what time of year.


Saturday, 11 April 2009

1983 Billy Joel: Uptown Girl

Billy Joel's first (and last) UK number one is a tribute in form to the New York doo wop sound of Frankie Valli et al, and a tribute in content to his then supermodel girlfriend Christie Brinkley. It's a popular track that, considering it's content specific subject matter, has been a surprising choice for other people to cover. It's memorable certainly, and everybody down at the eighties club knows exactly what's coming as soon as the opening 'Woahs' start up, but here's something about Joel's self deprecating lyrics and delivery that's way too smug for its own good.

"You know I can't afford to buy her pearls.
But maybe someday when my ship comes in, she'll understand what kind of guy I've been. And then I'll win" - "Maybe someday"? A bit rich coming from someone who obviously can afford to buy her not only the pearls, but also the ship that's meant to be coming in (in fact, he married Brinkley on his yacht). It reminds me of Mrs Merton asking Debbie McGee "What was it that first attracted you to multi-Millionaire Paul Daniels"? and it dilutes the 'hey, it's personality, not money or looks that counts' message ever so slightly.

And the manner of it's delivery is less than endearing too, with Joel's Bronx accent singularly failing to let rip with anything like Valli's formidable falsetto and instead drawling out the R's into a 'yous guys' "Uptown Girrrrrrrrl, You know I can't afford to buy her pirrrrrrls" crack at showing his working class, downtown guy credentials. It's not helped either by the music behind it all being a series of relentlessly bland formulaic handclaps and 'woahhs', and though it changes key frequently behind him, Joel's voice doesn't follow suit. Too excited to notice probably.


'Uptown Girl' is the musical equivalent of seeing the thick kid who disrupted the lessons at the back of the class while you sweated out your O Levels, suddenly pull up alongside your Ford Escort at the traffic lights ten years later in a 7 Series BMW and gloat in a 'hey, look where I got from doing nothing in school' kind of way while you feign indifference as your fingernails bite into the steering wheel. In other words, it's a boast accompanied by not very nice rubbing your face it gesture that would have worked well as a private wedding gift from him to her, but leaves a very sour taste in the mouth with the decision that the world should have a listen too. Putting her in the video didn't help make it any friends either - for god's sake, you're sleeping with a stunning woman, we get it Billy.


1983 Culture Club: Karma Chameleon

For their second number one, Culture Club ditched their earlier light reggae styling in favour of a more direct sound that was at odds with the New Romantic bands they were usually lumped in with.

In contrast to a lot of the music around it in the charts at the time, 'Karma Chameleon' has a remarkably chunky, almost 'indie' feel to it, with a straightforward bassline and guitar rhythm interconnecting over a simple drum pattern. Rather than lazily adding slabs of Roland filling to bulk out the sound the way certain groups were prone to do, 'Karma Chameleon' has a joyous harmonica counter melody that makes the whole track sound like it was recorded live in one take, meaning it's a harder song to date than most from the era. In fact, until George starts to sing, then this could easily be mistaken for something contemporary by Aztec Camera or The Woodentops.


So far so good, but it's when he does start to sing that 'Karma Chameleon' starts to unravel. Culture Club were never known for their insightful lyrics and 'Karma Chameleon' doesn't buck the trend. George sings sweetly of a temperamental lover but by the time this single was released, the world and his dog knew what Boy George was 'about' and so the knowing wink of the repeated line:


"I'm a man who doesn't know how to sell a contradiction"


suggests the unanswered rejoinder of 'Ah! But am I?' and it comes across as more irritating than playful, a cheap play to the gallery regarding an image that was there for all to see in any case rather than letting the music do the talking.


Not that this knowing self referential aside necessarily damns the song to hell, but the repetition of the chorus is also overdone to the point of annoyance, it's as if they knew they had a catchy refrain so were intent on wheeling it out at every opportunity:


"Karma karma karma karma karma chameleon

You come and go, you come and go"


As Oscar Wilde may have said (had he been tasked with reviewing this instead of me), to hear it once may be regarded as an enjoyable experience, to hear it again and again sets the teeth on edge. Neither is this chorus helped by some clumsy metaphor that tries to add a depth of meaning or mystery that just isn't there:


"Loving would be easy if your colours were like my dream

Red, gold and green"


George was always big on colours, but any personal meaning this may have is lost in the telling and what remains does not exactly make you yearn to break out the Rosetta Stone to try and decode it and it leaves behind a chorus that's all tune but with less substance than a roadsweeper's morning whistle.


In our times of eighties nostalgia, 'Karma Chameleon' is a dead cert inclusion in any 'Best Of' round-ups, but to my ears it's a shallow experience that's all gold plate rather than the solid 24 carat of, say, Oblivious' by the aforementioned Aztec Camera, a song released the same year.

'Karma Chameleon' is exactly the sort of breezy, giddy yet throwaway piece that Jonathan King would have written and then created a novelty band to perform it back in the seventies. Yes, it's a catchy tune with an infectious chorus that leaves you smiling, but then so is 'Una Paloma Blanca' and only your hardcore postmodernist would be trumpeting that as any kind of pinnacle of seventies music.


Thursday, 9 April 2009

1983 UB40: Red Red Wine

As unlikely a credit behind a reggae hit as you are ever going to find, Mr Neil Diamond was the writer of 'Red Red Wine'. And he wrote it as a typically brooding, overwrought ballad for him to angst all over as if the end of the world was imminent. Which, to be fair, is what Neil does best. Tony Tribe gave it a rocksteady makeover in 1969 and it's this version that UB40 based their single on rather than Diamond's (which they claim not to have heard previously), making it a cover version twice removed. If you see what I mean.

In Tribe's hands, 'Red Red Wine' plays as a musically fast skank with his voice closely mimicking Diamond's original guide vocal. This results in it sitting so far behind the beat that it's constantly playing catch up. It literally sounds like it was intended for a different tune altogether. UB40 redress the balance by slowing down the rhythm to match the speed of the vocal so that both run in harmony. The only major departure from both these versions is the:


"Red red wine you really know how fi love

Your kind of loving like a blessing from above"


rap/toast shoehorned in toward the end and which stands out awkwardly and is as welcome as finding a hair in your food; it's neither needed nor wanted and only serves to disrupt the 'till then grooving ambience of a song
that tells the familiar tale of trying to drown a departed lover's memory in alcohol. And the tale was ably illustrated with a memorable black and white video that had Ali Campbell on a night out that boiled down to him getting robbed and then ejected from a pub for getting too pissed after seeing his ex with another bloke. It's not your typical reggae scenario, but by updating the message of the song in a visual way that everyman in the UK could relate to, the whole mood and theme of the song was effectively presented in an empathetic third dimension that undoubtedly helped it's popularity far more than it would had they filmed something on a sunny Jamaican beach.

So, emotive and evocative, but in the final analysis 'Red Red Wine' remains reggae by numbers, and somebody else's numbers at that. And why shouldn't it? The track is from the band's 'Labour Of Love' album, a set of cover versions of the Jamaican music they'd grown up with and it's unlikely that anyone could have imagined the nerve that 'Red Red Wine' struck and it becoming the success that it did. Had it been a minor hit or remained solely an album track then I would have had more sympathy, a lot more in fact because although the song itself would remain the same, the effect of 'Red Red Wine''s success on UB40 would be long term and damaging.


In a nutshell, the first eight singles from the group were all self composed, topically hard hitting songs of social injustice, unemployment and unrest that would have struck a chord with any fan of the Two Tone movement. From 'Red Red Wine' on, the motherlode of formulas was struck and from here on in cover versions would be the rule rather than the expectation and 'Labour Of Love' was eventually stretched into three volumes of ever diminishing returns until the seam was picked clean.


True enough, workaday versions of Elvis Presley ballads will always have a far more universal appeal and make far more money than something like 'One In Ten' ever would, but the direction sucked the heart and soul out of a once angry band and turned their music into ideal fodder for the casual 'oh I like that one' brigade at the filling station and the supermarket checkout.
'Red Red Wine' marks the year zero, the precise point that the terminal rot set in and the moment the once angry dog was castrated to leave it happy and content to spend it's days on a rug in front of the fire licking it's own balls for pleasure instead of putting them to better use. And with credible white reggae acts a rare commodity, that is a terrible shame.


Tuesday, 7 April 2009

1983 KC & The Sunshine Band: Give It Up

Harry Wayne Casey (KC) and his Sunshine Band had enjoyed a consistent run of hits throughout the seventies with a series of songs that will forevermore be shoe-ins for any 'Best Of Disco' album; 'Queen Of Clubs', 'That's The Way (I Like It)' and 'Please Don't Go' all came to help define a look, an attitude and an era now gone. Like many successful acts of the seventies, the eighties presented a new landscape where their particular brand of music was no longer needed or (in some cases) even welcome anymore and 'Give It Up' would be the last time the band would chart in the UK.

All things being equal, 'Give It Up' should be a song out of time, as out of place at your standard nightclub as a Party Seven and a kipper tie. Certainly, the bare bones of the track are rooted firmly in their past and stylistically at least present no great leap forward from the disco funk they'd offered up previously. But by including a live brass rhythm section instead of your typically flanging disco synthesiser to punctuate the groove, 'Give It Up' is carried along on a bold, salsa-cum-jazz wave that will forever be daisy fresh and would not sound anachronistic in today's charts. Even less so at the height of summer, which is precisely when this was released.


Those horns play their part in the song's structure too in counterpointing the infectious 'Na na na na na na's' of the backing singers which in turn preface the tension busting chorus that, once heard, puts the listener on guard for it again and again in exactly the same way as the modern 'clubber' pauses for DJ Clueless to drop a beat. This effect though is all the sweeter when it's emphasised by a genuinely soulful voice singing a good few octaves lower than the music, and I wonder how many romances have flourished from a mouthed 'Give it up, baby give it up' to a stranger on the dancefloor?


'Give It Up' has everything in it's right place. It's as carefully crafted a dance track as you can imagine but with none of the cold cynicism to make it feel constructed rather than organic. It's the sound of good times in a hot summer and it can either bring back memories of the same or create a longing for a summer to come. Either way, it's music as Prozac and copies should be given away free on the NHS.


Monday, 6 April 2009

1983 Paul Young: Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home)

'Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home)' was originally written and recorded by Marvin Gaye in 1962. In Gaye's hands, it's a jaunty, cocky number that sees Gaye cast himself as jack the lad, merrily loving and leaving every woman he meets:"For I'm the type of boy who is always on the roam. Wherever I lay my hat that's my home" - no commitments and no regrets, it's a young man's song sung by a man in his prime.

Paul Young was only five years older than Gaye when he recorded this version, but rather than following the same footloose footsteps, Young fast forwards to give the viewpoint of the same person some twenty years on. Gone is the chirpy whistling and devil may care attitude to be replaced by the bleak portrait of an emotional cripple staring at an old age alone. The lyrics are the same, but interpretation is everything. Gaye's reading of:
"By the look in your eye I can tell you're gonna cry, is it over me? If it is, save your tears for I'm not worth it, you see" is the lothario's standard 'it's not you it's me' cop out at the end of a relationship that only he wants to end, but Young's interpretation is devastatingly honest - in recognising what a misogynistic heel he is, he infuses the lines with genuine hurt and self pity at the self realisation than his lifestyle has left him incapable of love in either the giving or receiving.

The emptiness of the vocal is echoed by the emptiness of the music surrounding it. Almost ambient in quality, it eschews all the beat and bounce of the original for a desolate landscape of sound that's barely there and gives the anguish of the vocal room to resonate alone. Instead of dating and spoiling the way of so may eighties tunes, Pino Palladino's fretless bass runs add a layer of earthereality to the sound of a singer who can't comprehend how his life has turned out the way it has.


A white 'soul singer' covering a Motown legend is generally a recipe for disaster, but
they say a broken clock is right at least twice a day. In terms of 'Wherever I Lay My Hat', not only were Young's clocks stopped at exactly the right moment, but every planet in the heavens was aligned and tuned into the music of the spheres for him to pull this one out of the hat. Fluke? Maybe, because - Alas! - such alignments don't last for long; a mere second later and the clock is as wrong as it can be, and Young never again came remotely close to equalling, let alone bettering, his work on this track.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

1983 Rod Stewart: Baby Jane

It's fair to say that the eighties weren't kind to Mr Stewart. The latter half of the seventies weren't exactly salad days either, with the man seemingly hell-bent on driving a wrecking ball through his credibility at every turn - 'Hotlegs'. 'Ole Ola', 'Do Ya Think I'm Sexy' - it's a roll call of embarrassing crap that would have sunk a lesser being without trace; never mind 'Baby Jane', whatever happened to the Rod Stewart who wrote 'Maggie May'?

With 1981's 'Young Turks', Stewart seemed keen to get his groove back by tapping into the New Wave with a song that had a modern sounding tune with bit of bite. 'Baby Jane' is more of the same, but whereas 'Young Turks' was a decent step forward to some kind of return to form, 'Baby Jane' shoves him rather more than two steps back.


After opening with a wailing synth line that must have caught Joey Tempest's ear when he wrote 'The Final Countdown' three years hence, 'Baby Jane' soon bogs itself down into a right old plod when those Linn drums start battering out a pedestrian beat with all the rhythm of a migraine and feeling just as enjoyable. On it goes, virtually unchanged in form and substance till the very end and if you removed Rod's vocal track then literally anything could be sung over the top of it on Karaoke night and it would matter not one jot.


All the tune and melody of 'Baby Jane' is carried solely in Stewart's mouth, and it's his vocal performance that saves the song from oblivion. For it's fair to say that he pours his heart, body, soul, blood, sweat and tears into his tale of a girl gone good who wants nothing more to do with him

"Baby Jane don't leave me hanging on the line
I knew you when you had no one to talk to
Now you're moving in high society
don't forget I know secrets about you"


It's almost 'Don't You Want Me' redux, and Stewart's voice howls out his frustration in a bug eyed, vein bulging blast that rasps like sandpaper on a doorframe. It's certainly his best vocal in years, but what takes the edge off the feeling that he 'means it man' is every word being enunciated with a pin sharp 'rain in Spain' clarity that does not suggest a man in torment; I can just picture his diction tutor clapping with joy at his pronunciation of the 'hhhhhhhhhhanging' in that first line, with it coming from somewhere near his tartan socks before leaving his gob.


Yes his voice is in top shape, but rather like putting Formula 1 tyres on a Ford Capri, it's wasted, and no amount of leading from the front effort can hide the fact that 'Baby Jane' is a lazy and formulaic affair from the off. Rod can only take it so far, and his shoulders are broad enough for a while, but then a hhhhhhhhhorribly tuneless saxophone solo halfway through tips the balance and nails the coffin lid down firmly.


So a step backwards again, though to be fair in this instance it's less of the own goal of the songs listed above than a fluffed penalty shot - at least he was kicking in the right direction this time. There would be better to come, but this would be the last time he'd top the charts.



Saturday, 4 April 2009

1983 The Police: Every Breath You Take

As far as The Police are concerned, 'Every Breath You Take' is best described by a series of 'gones'. Gone are the reggae styling and choppy guitar runs to be replaced by a deliberate, descending guitar and bass lines held in place by Copeland's simple drum beat. Gone is the feel-good humour and coughing teachers of previous singles to be replaced by a noir-ish theme of obsession and stalking from the point of view of someone who won't accept a relationship is over.

Gone too is the throwaway 'Three Stooges' style video of the band larking about in foreign places. Instead, Godley and Creme were drafted in to direct and arty black and white footage that had Sting playing upright bass jazz style and a backing of an intense looking violin quartet. The effect of it all smacks of 'we're being serious now and not mucking about in the snow and the sun,' but in truth the song doesn't need such a po-faced and austere setting as it's capable enough to stand up by itself.

Written during the break up of his marriage to actress Frances Tomelty, 'Every Breath You Take' plays for the most part like a mantra of obsession. It's minor key and understated guitar lines see Andy Summers' usual chords of sunburst jangle replaced with a spare and empty delivery where every note is methodically plucked and dampened, while Sting's lyric brooding lyric obsessively counts the ways he still loves his missing lover:"Every breath you take, every move you make. Every bond you break, every step you take, I'll be watching you" - over and over it goes in a repetitive litany of madness that reminds of Jack Nicholson endlessly typing 'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy' in The Shining. You can well imagine the lines being mumbled by a strait-jacketed inmate in a padded cell as he writes them on the wall in crayon.

When the tune does shift key, it's not to let in the light:"Oh can't you see, you belong to me. How my poor heart aches, with every step you take": the impact is chilling in its possesiveness and the implication that the only way to stop the self pity in heartache is to stop his ex taking any more steps. It's the weak man's 'if I can't have you then no one will' argument writ large. And the fact that the song ends with a repeated 'I'll be watching you' gives no respite, making what's not said all the more disturbing.

In light of the songs around it in the charts at the time, 'Every Breath You Take' feels like a passing car has slowed down to throw out a mangled corpse with a rictus grin into the midst of a beach party. Unnerving and unsettling, it's an unlikely number one as they come, but yet it's the sound of the band as a whole maturing, hitting their stride and growing up in public. 'Every Breath You Take' is the sound of a rug being pulled from under expectations. Unrecognisable from anything they did previous, it marks a break from the past and a pointer to the future in the way that, for example, 'Tomorrow Never Knows' did for The Beatles. But of course, the shame is that the biggest 'gone' of all would soon be The Police themselves, leaving 'Every Breath You Take' behind as a tantalising glimpse of what might have been.

Friday, 3 April 2009

1983 New Edition: Candy Girl

'Manufactured' is a common insult to hurl at any band not seen to have 'paid their dues' by slogging around the club circuit for five years before finding fame. In many cases it's justified where a band clearly has been assembled specifically to 'shift product' to a specified demographic, usually teen and pre-teen schoolgirls, with every step of the way from look, sound and presentation carefully marketed by the men in suits to reap maximum profit.

To regard them all such bands as the wet dream of bean counting blue meanies is unfair though - when it comes down to it, the Sex Pistols were no less 'manufactured' than The Monkees, and both recorded songs that have become part of the DNA of popular music.


New Edition occupy a hinterland between the two extremes above. True, they had 'paid their dues' by forming and performing since 1978 before winning a Maurice Starr talent show and finding fame through his direction. But Starr then fashioned them into a clean cut 'Jackson 5' for the eighties and presented them with an album full of his own songs to sing. And if because of this New Edition can be given the benefit of the doubt, then there is no denying that they were only a skip and a jump away from New Kids On The Block, a boy band that Starr also created and who were as manufactured as custard creams.


So where does this leave 'Candy Girl'? From the moment the song starts and Ralph Tresvant opens his mouth to sing, the 'Jackson 5' influences pour down in like hammers from a roofer's bag. Tunewise, 'Candy Girl' borrows heavily from the Jackson's 'ABC'. Very heavily in fact. And for the parts that it doesn't borrow, it borrows from 'I Want You Back' instead, making 'Candy Girl' sound like a prototype 'mash up' of the two songs, albeit given an overhauling eighties remix.


Tresvant himself sounds uncannily like a young Michael and sings with the same joyful exuberance:


"Candy girl

You are my world
Look so sweet
You're a special treat"


It needs a young voice to sing that without having to break out the vomit bags, but you just know he's grinning ear to ear all the while and it gives the tune an infectious appeal. And therein lies the problem. Although all five members of New Edition grew up on the rough side of town, and although 'Candy Girl' incorporates elements of the burgeoning hip hop and rap scene, it's not the sound of the street.

'Candy Girl''s psuedo Afrika Bambaataa flourishes and beats are not incorporated as part of the song, but are ornaments nailed onto a clean cut standard rhythm track that gets more and more wearing as it goes on - once you've heard the first thirty seconds then you've heard the whole thing. And while Tresvant might sound like Michael Jackson, he isn't, and he can't carry the song to the end once the electronic pings and pongs start to grate. There's no danger here, no excitement, no edge and both the song and the video seems to portray each band member as a Gary Coleman clone in a 'relax, we haven't come for your daughters' kind of way.

Granted, New Edition did not set out to be Public Enemy, but 'Candy Girl' sounds like an attempt to neuter that direction of development by making it palatable to the white middle classes before it's even had chance to grow teeth. And all for the sake of a quick buck. That Starr perfected this formula with 'New Kids' is telling, and it makes 'Candy Girl' less the sound of young America and more how America wanted it's young to sound.



Wednesday, 1 April 2009

1983 Spandau Ballet: True

In 1983, one of the benchmarks of cultural and social aspiration for any up and coming bright young thing worth their salt would be a drive down the newly opened local inner city winebar-cum-nightclub in a red, spoiler laden XR3i with something typically smooth on the in-car tape machine. It wasn't a ride down Rodeo Drive in a Testarossa with the roof off like the boys in Miami Vice used to do, but it was a typically British alternative - achievable, but not by any old member of the hoi polloi and it gave those who had this privilege the chance to feel a cut above the rest of the population who drove down to the Kings Head in a battered Ford Cortina.

On the face of it, very nice I'm sure. But scratch ever so slightly below the surface and you'd find that the 1983 XR3i was a ghastly, noisy, breakdown prone square box with a 120mph top speed barely fast enough to get out of it's own way, and that the 'winebar' was in fact a converted pub cellar with some garish neon signs and plastic seating that sold lager in long, thin glasses in a feeble attempt to justify the hugely inflated bar prices. Miami Vice it certainly was not.


Which brings us neatly to 'True'. If any song would be a soundtrack to these strange days indeed, it would have to be this one.

In 1983, 'True' would have been playing in the car, in the winebar, in the everywhere young lovers could get all gooey eyed at each other while it hummed in the background. There's no doubt what Gary Kemp had been listening to when he wrote this, and his aspirations to a smooth Motown/Temptations type groove is admirable enough. A step up from 'Musclebound' for sure, but in a marvellous stroke of irony for a song called 'True', the end product is anything but.


Not true to it's soul based source inspiration anyway, and 'product' is an apt description as 'True' has a rather empty, plastic sound about it, like it was constructed from an Airfix 'soul song' kit they'd picked up down the market. Sure, all the component parts are there; it's a laid back ballad carried along on a simple yet seductive guitar riff and highlighted by brushed drums, a suitably tasteful saxophone solo and a massed yet hushed backing 'Ba Ba Ba' lullaby-like vocal accompaniment. But peer below the bonnet and 'True' is to, for example, 'Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)' (a track it's obviously modelled on) as the above mentioned Ford is to the Ferrari - that is, it's an affordable alternative that although at a push can come across as a bit of class, will only really appeal to those who know no better.


'True' is classic white stiletto soul, but though it lacks the crucial ingredients to give it depth and substance, the chief offender to scupper the song is Tony Hadley and his vocals.


"This is the sound of my soul",


he mugs, but if this is in fact true then his soul is a dull, flat and barren landscape that even the most desperate devil would not want to bargain for. He may well have been "Listening to Marvin (all night long)", but from the results it's a toss up as to whether he means Gaye or Hagler, because I can't imagine the boxer would have a singing voice as blandly tone free as Tone's. It's soul by numbers, cynical in it's execution, empty in its presentation
and Hadley could just as well be memorising his shopping list by rote than pondering the mysteries of love. A cheap and cheerful knock off of the real deal in fact.

I'm conscious that I might be being a bit harsh here and that there'll be any number of fortysomethings who will cherish 'True' as being 'their song', the one they had the first kiss or even (shudder) walked down the aisle to. But the sentiment of others can't negate the dry taste that it leaves on my palette. Listening to 'True' is like eating Cream Crackers with no topping - it's bearable and it will do if you're hungry enough, but the experience could have been so much better with a little bit of garnish and imagination.


1983 David Bowie: Let's Dance

After the experimental sounds of the 'Scary Monsters' album, 'Let's Dance' (the album and single) was a 'comeback' of sorts for Bowie after a spell of acting and soundtrack work that wasn't as well received as it could have been. 'Let's Dance' the single saw him following a cleaner, harder sound than previous, a sound that although far removed from disco, did embrace disparate strands of contemporary dance music.

After opening with a sly nod to Chris Montez's song of the same name, 'Let's Dance' explodes with a rimshot drumcrack that ricochets over a thick, squelchy bass run that sounds like Chic on half speed with some nagging Cuban horn interludes that broaden the palette of the basic funk package. Over the top of this, Stevie Ray Vaughan provides some metal-like guitar lines that jolt the song along like sonic injections of neat electricity and add a layer of unpredictability to the foreground.


With Nile Rodgers producing at New York's Power Station and Tony Thompson on drums, the Chic comparisons are apt. But in place of the dense and interlocking dance-musique concrete of that band, Rodgers removes a lot of the reverb from the instruments to keep the notes sharp and direct, and this technique by itself leaves acres of space between the instruments, giving each room to breathe and separate rather than syncopating furiously. And this wide space between the tracks is needed to make way for Bowie's laid back and behind the beat vocal performance:
"Let's dance, put on your red shoes and dance the blues" he groans, though far from being a rhythmical and energetic call to arms, Bowie sounds like he can barely be arsed to get up out of his chair and is content just to sit back and watch the band playing up a storm around him.

None of the above should work in theory, not in a dance/funk track anyway, but just like the common bumble bee who should not scientifically be capable of flight, Bowie ropes the disparate elements together and pulls arguably his last great song out of the bag. 'Let's Dance' is twitchy enough to avoid being lazily derivative, yet of sufficient structure and cohesion to play to the mainstream and appeal to not only his older fans who kept the faith since the seventies, but also the new generation raised on New Wave/No Wave experimentation. It's no fluke that this was also the Billboard number one in America.


In terms of his musical output, Bowie would have a truly wretched decade from here on in. But while all the promotional images from this era show him bleached with big hair and bigger shirts, 'Let's Dance' still sounds fresh and vibrant and shorn of any of the eighties hangovers that would dog most of his other recordings from the decade, a miserable period that saw his credibility nosedive and from which he never fully recovered and now probably never will.



1983 Duran Duran: Is There Something I Should Know?

I confess upfront that I have a soft spot for most of Duran Duran's singles prior to this one. 'Rio' 'Girls On Film' et al fizzed along with likeable verve and were catchy enough to paper over any of their cracked limitations. Harmless nonsense is what the band always did best, but now, at the height of their fame, it's as if they felt obliged to come out with some kind of 'big statement', to have a stab at something a bit more left of centre to show those pesky critics that there was more to them than hair and girls. Which they did with 'Is There Something I Should Know?' and in so doing overreached themselves horribly. Very horribly in fact.

The first thing you hear as the stylus hits the vinyl is Le Bon's trademark Brummie bellow shouting out "Please, please tell me now, is there something I should know? ". OK, it's dramatic enough, but does he get his answer? Who can tell? It's difficult to discern anything from this rambling mess of a song. Gone is the simple verse/chorus/verse approach that had served them well to date and in comes a tuneless sprawl with verses one, two and three all sounding like offcuts from separate, quite different songs with each playing in a different key and with a different tune to the one before. It takes no small degree of talent to pull something like that off successfully and whatever else the band may have been, Frank Zappa they are not. Far from it; the component parts to 'Is There Something I Should Know?' fit together as convincingly as a Jerry built shithouse made out of straw.

What doesn't help is that neither Le Bon nor the band sound like they have the first idea where all this is going. Everybody sounds lost in space but just when things seem to be meandering off the edge of the map into oblivion, Le Bon tries gamely to get back on some kind of track with another yell of the "Please, please tell me now" refrain, but rather than the reassuring return of a recognisable hook, the effect is as jarring as being woken from a light doze by having bamboo hammered under your fingernail.
This same cycle is repeated until the next round of the chorus until, with the resigned air of a towel being thrown into the ring, Le Bon proceeds to shout on auto repeat to the end. And though some gospel-like backing vocals try to inject some life at the runout, the song has been too badly holed below the water line by then for it to have any effect whatsoever in reviving this bloated corpse lying long dead in the water.

"Is There Something I Should Know?" is an awful song of no structure, no rhythm, no meaning and, in short, no point. But it got to number one (and in fact went straight in to the top spot) and sold over 500,000 copies so someone must have seen something in it. I just wish they'd please, please tell me what.



1983 Bonnie Tyler: Total Eclipse Of The Heart

Though Tyler had already enjoyed no small success during the mid seventies, by 1979 she'd dropped off the chart radar before (well let's be honest)....unexpectedly...storming the barricades with 'Total Eclipse Of The Heart', her first (and last) number one. And being (as it is) a Jim Steinman track, 'storming' is a very apt adjective; 'Total Eclipse' is a prime example of Steinman's self created genre of 'Wagnerian Rock'. That is, music with pop sensibilities turned up to 11 and garnished with a generous topping of sturm and drang, the same recipe that had previosly made Meat Loaf an (well let's be honest)...unlikely...star.

So what does all that mean in ptactice? Well, after starting low key with a simple piano introduction, 'Total Eclipse' soon gathers the unstoppable momentum of a lorry with a slipped handbrake running backwards down a hill as Tyler unloads her tale of love lost with ever increasing hysteria:
"And I need you now tonight. And I need you more than ever. And if you'll only hold me tight. We'll be holding on forever" 

 
Angsty? Oh yes,
'Total Eclipse' has angst by the lungfull, but whereas Tyler's gravelly tones crunch just fine when she's holding back to let the vulnerability and cracked emotion through (see those "turn around bright eyes" sections), when she rips the lid off and clicks into overwrought overdrive, her strained histrionics sound less like the spurned lover at the end of their rope than a Swansea fishwife on a Saturday night alcopops bender: "I don't know what to do and I'm always in the dark. We're living in a powder keg and giving off sparks" - I can almost picture one of the backing singers  wrapping an arm around her shoulder and whispering a 'Forget 'im Bonnie luv, e's not worf it, let's get some chips".

A vocalist with rockier chops would have ridden this like Boudicca in her chariot to rip every last ounce of guts out of it with spinning blades, but Tyler ultimately winds up dwarfed by the enormity Steinman's vision, leaving her struggling to stamp her own identity over the scale, the production, the whammy whammy guitar and the drums/
1812 Overture cannons amplified to ear bleed at the bridge. And yet for all the bluster, Steinman's Janus-like approach means his other, non bombastic ear is continuously tuned to the straight pop backbone that was buried under Phil Spector's 'wall of sound', rendering 'Total Eclipse' something of a halfway house. It's too much of a melodic ballad to be a balls out rocker, yet it's too loud to be enjoyed in life's more contemplative moments meaning 'Total Eclipse' comes and goes like a tornado on the horizon - an impressive spectacle of force in it's own right, but one that you're not too sorry to safely see the back of.


1983 Michael Jackson: Billie Jean

After the oxygen tents, the plastic surgery, the monkeys and the inappropriate bedtime companions, it's very easy to view the latter day Michael Jackson as a one man freak show attraction in a third rate circus and nothing more; rarely has someone fallen from grace so far, so spectacularly and so publicly. But it wasn't always this way, no indeed - for those raised on Jackson as a media punch bag, hearing 'Billie Jean' for the first time will come as a smart slap in the face, like being shown a photograph of Angela Lansbury circa 1945 after a diet of nothing but 'Murder She Wrote'.

Based on a real life event of a fan claiming Jackson as the father of her twins, 'Billie Jean' opens with a kick, snare and hit hat drum beat pulse before building into a snake of a bassline that unravels out of the disc like voodoo. Keyboards and guitars gradually add to the brew before Jackson's one take lead vocal gasps out start the tale of the single mother dancing in the round and then we're off headlong into an unstoppably sleek, funky groove that's drum tight yet jangles like a frayed nerve.


Quincy Jones' celebrated production is hard as brass (a fledgling MTV regarded it as sufficiently 'rock' enough to air it on heavy rotation), as polished as chrome and powered by steam - every multitracked yelp and squeal slots perfectly into place and to add or remove a single vocal hiccup or musical motif and interlude would crack the surface to see the track suffer and become something less than the majestic work it is.


Never mechanical or music by rote, 'Billie Jean''s organic sound is shot through with a soul worthy of the finest Stax or Motown (there's more than a hint of Marvin Gaye's classic 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine' in its structure, though Jackson is hearing his bad news first hand), and it's a soul fuelled by the dark, almost psychotic pulp fiction theme of the lyrics, a freaky scenario that is in turn complimented by flashing and descending violin flourishes that give nod to Bernard Hermann's score for 'Psycho'. And all the while Louis Johnson's hypnotic bassline constantly wraps itself around the mix like a tentacle that reaches out to grab and drag the listener onto the dancefloor. Because if ever a song was built for dancing, it's this one.


A great many music careers and songs owe a debt to the blueprint set out in 'Billie Jean'. It's hard to imagine virtually the whole of the modern day 'R&B' scene existing without it mapping the way or a start. Unfortunately, Jackson himself returned to the well many, many times and by churning out Xerox after Xerox, the original design was copied into nothing and what was once fresh soon got very, very stale as his own career imploded into self parody. Best remember him this way.


1983 Kajagoogoo: Too Shy

If Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet represented an eighties rivalry equivalent to the Beatles and the Stones of the sixties (in purely analogous terms you understand), then Kajagoogoo would be bringing up the rear as a kind of latter day Freddie and the Dreamers. Whereas Duran Duran led the way in the love it or hate it New Romantic genre, Kajagoogoo were very much the annoying kid brother hell bent on tagging along three steps behind and exuded a 'me too, me too' aura over everything they did.

'Too Shy' is a typical slab of half baked synth heavy eighties pop dressed up in the lamest of white boy funk clothing. A horrible slap bass runs through the scales in the background and busily slaps out a multitude of notes without once managing to string them together in anything approximating a groove, while a patchwork of Roland synthesiser and electronic drum fills try to paper over the cracks and give the impression that there is something of substance here. But there isn't. And with lyrics like
"Modern medicine falls short of your complaints. Ooh, try a little harder.You're moving in circles, won't you dilate. Baby try", how could there be?

From Limahl's weedy vocal in (his cries of 'Hey girl, move a little closer' sound more akin to someone grooming an underage child than anything remotely sensual) 'Too Shy' is all surface and no depth - a dish of starters with no main course and a chorus that only manages to break ranks and come to the fore because of the blandness that surrounds it. In fact, to modern ears 'Too Shy' sounds almost a parody of what an eighties band ought to sound like - I half expect the band to pull off their rubber masks in the video to reveal the Not The Nine O'Clock News team grinning underneath. Nice video, shame about the song indeed.
And as for that song, it's as inconsequential and manufactured as a bowl of Angel Delight and just as nourishing; 'Too Shy' is a quick sugar fix that seems to exist solely for the purpose of existing. Only unlike the aforementioned sugary topping, prolonged exposure will rot your ears rather than your teeth.


1983 Men At Work: Down Under

In a world pre Kylie and pre Home and Away, Australian artists were rare visitors to the UK charts. By and large the most exposure folk in the UK had of the country was Rolf Harris, Edna Everage and that dour 'Neighbours as filmed by Ingmar Bergman' soap opera 'The Sullivans', a show that cast a long shadow over many a lunchtime in my younger days. Granted, the likes of The Seekers and Olivia Newton John had hit number one, but it was slim pickings.

'Down Under' celebrates it's Australian-ess on its sleeve as bold as sparkly neon, and it does so without resorting to cheapjack clich├ęs and gimmicks - there are no kangaroos, no didgeridoos and no wobble boards.

Rather, it runs on a good natured reggae backbeat with a counterpoint lone flute carrying the main tune like a birdsong. In fact, one of the things that strikes most about the song is just how much is going on behind the scenes. Guitars and percussion are constantly doing bits of business, syncopating and subtly shifting keys in a manner that Brian Eno would nod his head in approval at, yet all the while it never loses sight of the funky reggae beat at its backbone


Loosely telling the tale of an Aussie tourist seeing the world, 'Down Under' walks a fine/dangerous line between out and out novelty and genuine humour. The fact that it resolutely avoids the corn is testament to the quality of the writing which body swerves a predictable 'Carry On Oz' approach and is as humorous now as it was then; only the most terminally miserable could resist cracking a smile at lines like:


"Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was six foot four and full of muscles
I said, do you speak-a my language?

He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich"


and this before a certain Jean Claude Van Damme had even made his first film.


Ultimately, 'Down Under' was and remains a joy. Hitting number one in a cold January, it was a shot of early summer sun in song and, after two weeks of Mr Collins, it must have seemed like someone had opened a window.



1983 Phil Collins: You Can't Hurry Love

With 'You Can't Hurry Love', writers Holland-Dozier-Holland urge us to remember back to what 'mama said'. But instead of what she said, imagine if you will, a full roast dinner like mama used to make. Now imagine that same dinner cooked without any salt, gravy or seasoning of any kind. Go further, and now also imagine it with all the vitamins and minerals chemically removed until all that's left behind are blocks of matter the shape and colour of meat and vegetables. It still looks like a roast dinner, but it tastes of nothing and contains no intrinsic nutritional value whatsoever, making eating it a joyless and ultimately fruitless exercise. Such is the fate of 'You Can't Hurry Love' once it's been through the Collins mangle.

In the hands of The Supremes, the song skipped along on waves of Motown melody and harmony, with Diana Ross's breathless vocal juxtaposing the yearning theme of the title with a wink and a sly 'come on'. Collins, on the other hand, brings nothing to the party and instead manages to suck every last drop of excitement and joy from the track from his tin bucket wail that effectively nullifies it's gospel and R&B roots, to the white bread recording that's so sterile and cold it should have been sold vacuumed packed. Though arguably enough plastic had already been wasted on the single itself, an artifact that stands as the epitome of pointlessness.