Tuesday, 2 June 2009

1985 Shaking Stevens: Merry Christmas Everyone

It comes as an eye rubbing shock to see that Shakey was still having number ones this far into the decade, but it's Christmas time and so different rules apply. 'Merry Christmas Everyone' was also the first Christmas song 'proper' to take the seasonal number one spot since 'Mary's Boy Child' in 1978.

I've always thought that the best way to judge how 'good' a Christmas song is by how often it's revived in future years. For example, Slade's 'Merry Christmas Everybody' is a genre classic that's everywhere from about November on while Chris Hill's 'Bionic Santa' isn't. On both counts. The fact that 'Merry Christmas Everyone' entered the charts again in 2007 and managed to reach number 22 shows that someone must like it, but I can't say I'm one of them.

In truth, 'Merry Christmas Everyone' is a pretty anaemic, one key affair that plods where it should bounce and has precious little of the rock and roll enthusiasm of his previous output; endlessly repeating the title and clichéd Christmassy observations ('Snow is falling' 'time for presents' etc etc) don't by themselves get the party started or make it any more festive. They just irritate. A wildly inappropriate (in this context at least - it sounds like an outtake from Gary Glitter's far superior 'Another Rock & Roll Christmas') saxophone solo and a monster key change at 2.24 try their damndest to keep things interesting, but they only serve to highlight the lack of basic imagination that's gone into this.

Christmas songs, like Christmas cards, are a means to an end. Some Christmas cards are ornate affairs with sparkle and gold leaf that sit proudly on any mantelpiece while others come in a box of 100 and are printed on thin, flimsily cardboard that won't stand up on their own without flopping over into the fire. I will leave my dear readers to decide which of these best describes 'Merry Christmas Everyone' and I'll just add that it's a fitting end to what must be one of the worst years for number one singles since records began. Bah humbug.

1985: Whitney Houston: Saving All My Love For You

The vantage point of hindsight can reveal some terrible landscapes. Take Whitney Houston. "For the next generation there's a singer who combines the fiery gospel of Aretha Franklin with the stunning elegance and the beauty of lyric phrasing of Lena Horne and she is Whitney Houston". Clive Davis said that, and though as President of Arista records (Whitney's label) he could be said to be biased, he also makes a good case.

There is no doubt that Ms Houston can sing. Daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, cousin of Dionne Warwick, niece to Thelma Houston and godchild to Aretha Franklin, there's is no way any of that line up would have let her near a microphone if she was going to embarrass herself. And on 'Saving All My Love For You' she doesn't.

It's a strange song for any 22 year old from a gospel background to tackle at the outset of a career, based as it is on the viewpoint of the 'other woman' in an adulterous relationship:

"A few stolen moments is all that we share

You've got your family and they need you there
Though I've tried to resist being last on your list
But no other man's gonna do
So I've saving all my love for you"

It's heady stuff, and by trying to make a virtue of horsing around with another woman's husband (made more explicit in the video), Houston risked the wrath of wronged women the world over and a negative backlash that could have sunk her career before it had properly started. And yet as soon as she opens her mouth to sing the opening lines, all thoughts of Houston as possible being a 'bad girl' melt away with her hypnotic delivery.

Forget the singer she became, running through the scales simply because she could and hanging on to every note until it died on the vine, Houston's phrasing on this is immaculate. There's restraint where restraint is needed and when she soars, it's because she is emphasising the depth of her love and devotion in a way that the song demands and not showing off in a 'look at me' way.

For once, Houston is singing the song instead of trying to steamroller it flat and the fact that 'Saving All My Love For You' has a lyric by Gerry Goffin means it has a depth that much of the later flim flam she was given to record sorely lacked. It's an adult song with adult themes and yet Houston tackles it with a confidence and assurance that belies her age. Michael Masser's subtle musical backing and production wisely remains muted, almost to the point of slipping into muzak, in order to play second fiddle to Houston's delivery which he knows is the true star here.

For a while at least it seemed that Davis's comments would ring true, that a baton had been passed from those illustrious members of her extended family and that a new chapter in this dynasty was about to be written. Sadly, it was not to be. Houston would go on to have incredible musical success and more number ones would follow, but the brash and over the top road she would follow was at the expense of the raw emotional honesty she displayed on this recording and it always reminds me of some rich kid with the best car money can buy but not the first idea of how to drive it properly.

The whole package of 'Saving All My Love For You' is an American Tragedy in microcosm, an observation hammered home with that sleeve image of the fresh faced Houston ready to conquer the world as another Aretha or another Dionne. Hindsight reveals she followed a much different path, one less concerned about soul and more about substance, be it purely fiscal or the 'more is better' attitude. The most frustrating thing was how quickly she got sidetracked down these roads that, although were wide and straight, never led anywhere particularly interesting. And certainly not to anywhere you'd want to visit again. Shame.

1985 Wham!: I'm Your Man

At this point in time, Wham! were at the pinnacle of their popularity. Fresh from conquering China, 'I'm Your Man' was highly anticipated as their first new material in almost a year. Despite this gap between releases though, 'I'm Your Man' is struck from the same mould that formed 'Freedom' to the extent that it's almost a re-write.

Yet again, 'I'm Your Man' is driven by an upbeat R&B thump with blasts of good time saxophone to add flavour, but whereas 'Freedom' flowed naturally through it's verses from A to B, 'I'm Your Man' is fuelled by a bonhomie that by virtue of its sheer relentlessness sounds forced and contrived.

It builds quickly enough into the tension releasing 'Baby, I'm your man' chorus refrain, but then a needless key change into 'If you're gonna do it, do it right' serves to pull on the handbrake of the song's natural progression, ultimately making it an awkward and unsatisfying listen. Which is apt, because 'I'm Your Man' literally has nothing to say for itself beyond George's bragging about how good he is in bed.

Further, the whole meat of the song is contained in its first minute and the remaining three are wave upon wave of repetition of the above that bludgeon you into thinking you're listening to some forgotten Stax B side in attempt to paper over the fact that 'I'm Your Man' is really quite an uninspired track that bores where it tries to invigorate, rather like a parent trying to kick-start a birthday party by some compulsory game of pass the parcel when all the sulking kids want to do is eat jelly till they're sick.

Unfortunately, Michael was fresh out of jelly in 1985. With more than one eye on his imminent solo career (the accompanying video showing Michael with his shirt open to the waist and designer stubble is telling), 'I'm Your Man' is writing by numbers that gives the overwhelming impression Michael was bored with the band and the restrictions it brought and to that end, 'I'm Your Man' sounds written to order for an uncritical audience. On that level at least it succeeds, but its sheer ordinariness means it falls far short of the songs he'd already written and those he would come to write.

1985 Feargal Sharkey: A Good Heart

'A Good Heart' was written (but not recorded) by Maria McKee in the aftermath of the breakdown of her relationship with Benmont Tench of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers. Sharkey, of course, was the former vocalist with The Undertones, now forging a solo career.

With a lyric detailing bravado in the face of loss and an underlying bitterness that comes from experience, 'A Good Heart' is a good song. Sharkey, however, isn't the singer to do it justice. His distinctive yelp worked well when he was singing about Mars Bars and getting his teenage kicks, but it's ill suited to more serious matter; there's an ever present smirk in his delivery that implies he's not taking things as seriously as he should, despite the studious pose on the sleeve.

This flaw was the weak link in the later, more mature Undertones albums, in the Assembly's 'Never Never' single and it's the weak link here too. It just doesn't ring true.
Sharkey may have grown up since 'My Perfect Cousin', but his voice has stayed behind in perpetual adolescence and it will forever root him to his past. His aim for the rafters on the 'a good hearrrgghht' refrain on the chorus makes him sound more like a man gargling Listerine than a man in emotional torment and it undermines the heartfelt message of the lyric which isn't claiming 'A good heart is hard to find, but I don't care because I'm off to play football with my mates', which is a lyric the Sharkey of 1978 vintage would have sang and sang well.

It's notable too that 'A Good Heart' is driven by the same (albeit slower) relentless, monotonous 4/4 drumbeat and backing keyboard shimmer heard only recently of Midge Ure's 'If I Was', itself borrowed from a Queen song. This highlights both the sheer paucity of imagination that went into the production on this track (hang down your head Dave Stewart) and also the predictable banality of the record buying public. It also makes this version of 'A Good Heart' a bland and uninteresting four minutes, far removed from the abrasive cowpunk Americana genre that McKee operates in. Not to put too fine a point on it, the song deserves better.

On a note of trivia, Benmont Tench wrote a response to this to tell his side of the affair and generally have a pop at Maria. This song, 'You Little Thief', would be Sharkey's next single. The same criticisms would apply.

1985 Jennifer Rush: The Power Of Love

The biggest selling single of 1985 was this power ballad imported from New York via Bavaria and sung by a woman known to her mother as Heidi Stern. Built almost entirely around a structured sequence of electronic percussion, 'The Power Of Love' drifts into being via a breeze of vaguely ambient, Eno-type synth washes that noodle away in the background as Rush carefully intones the opening 'The whispers in the morning, of lovers sleeping tight. Are rolling like thunder now, as I look in your eyes'

common sense dictates this sparseness can't go on to the end and the anticipation of change generates a underlying tension in that, although there's no form or structure to what you're hearing, you just know that it's leading up to something. In the common parlance of the power ballad, a drumroll or crash of power chords usually shifts the gears to get things going and so it comes as a genuine surprise when Rush carries the momentum herself by skyscraping her voice up a few octaves to deliver the chorus payload "Cause I am your lady, and you are my man."

And its sheer unexpectedness provides a welcome frission of excitement in a genre mapped by blandness that still makes me smile every time I hear it.
The problem is of course that you can only pull a rabbit out of the hat once before the novelty wears thin, and when the surge comes round the second time then you're put on guarded anticipation for it's arrival. Unfortunately, that first peak comes in at around the sixty second mark and, with another good four minutes left to fill, 'The Power Of Love' soon falls into a rut of repetition and predictability with the chorus milked for all its worth.

And in so milking, finally adding those crashing drums serves less to create an aura of heightened drama and more to diluting the purity its original appearance, kicking the song down to MOR soft rock hell.
By the time of it's third go round, Rush's voice seems to have lost all the confidence she showed at the start, making it not so much a statement of fact of the strength of her love but a questioning plea that needs affirmation from her partner and it ends the song on a downward trajectory that negates the uplifting force of the opening minute.

Nevertheless, 'The Power Of Love' is undeniably distinctive and memorable, largely because of Rush's warm vocals that have the exotic hint of her Germanic upbringing. Power ballads may have come to have the aura of the wretched throughout the eighties but the total absence of guitars or over production here comes as a breath of fresh air and all the purpose, power and drive of the song comes from Rush and Rush alone.
I can't begin to imagine how many marriages, funerals or last slow dances this must have soundtracked since 1985 and, as I type this, I can pretty much guarantee that someone somewhere in the world is belting it out at a Karaoke session. 'The Power Of Love' demands some seriously heavy lifting though and I can pretty much guarantee 'they' are making a right old mess of it.

1985 Midge Ure: If I Was

I've always seen the post John Foxx Ultravox as the 'Alan Partridge' of the electronic movement, totally un-self aware in the bland pretension of their po-faced output. Perhaps not unexpectedly, Ure cracks open no new moulds for his debut solo single, quite the opposite in fact. 'If I Was' 'borrows' Queen's 'Radio Ga Ga' for its basic rhythm track and a walking in treacle version of Ultravox's own 'Hymn' for the chorus; there may be nothing new under the sun, but these lifts are blatant, not less through the Queen song being barely a year old. Put them all together and you have a low key plod built around an ascending chorus that's Ultravox in all but name.

Lyrically, it's torturous. Midge's lines are shoehorned into some Procrustean bed of rhyme to force them to scan, but they end up running as smoothly as a car with square wheels:"If I was a leader, on food of love from above I would feed her". And "If I was a poet, all my love in burning words I would show it". And "If I was her lover, her eyes in kisses I would cover". The Grammar Nazi's may want break out the arrest papers over the "If I was etc" when 'If I were' etc would more correct usage in this context too. But let's not go there.

'If I Was' is an agreeable slice of middle aged angst aimed at those who like to sort out their worries and stress by reaching for the kettle rather than the razor blades. Unchallenging, unthreatening and unimaginative - there will always be a nodding audience for songs that seem to be making profound statements on the human condition. 'Real music' they like to smugly call it, but 'If I Was' is more Fraud than Freud in those stakes. Or should that be 'In stakes of those, more Fraud than Freud is 'If I Was'? Or should it be 'In stakes of those, more Fraud than Freud was 'If I Was'? Enough.

1985 Mick Jagger & David Bowie: Dancing In The Street

In February 2009, Mojo magazine put Martha and the Vandellas' version of 'Dancing In The Street' at number one in their '100 Greatest Motown Songs' list saying: "the song is a proud embracing of the in-the-moment experience carried forward on a surge of thrillingly emphatic playing by the Funk Brothers studio band and the exuberant singing of Martha Reeves". I can't argue with that, so I won't. And while it's not my favourite Motown song, it's top five. So with such a definitive version already in the can, what do Messer's Bowie and Jagger bring to the table? Well......

Opening with a harsh whistle, a frantic drum beat and Jagger's camp holler of the of various world city names, the casual listener is led to believe they are in for a radical deconstructive re-working of the song whereas it in fact only leads us up the garden path;
after all, this was for charity, a sphere where it's never wise to take too many risks and it soon settles into the recognisable stomp of the Vandella's cut.

Recognisable maybe, but only in the way that a large, round, smiling face with four sticks coming out of it in a child's drawing is recognisable as a human being. A lot has to be inferred. The 'thrillingly emphatic playing by the Funk Brothers' that Mojo emphasised is replaced by a synthesiser led wooze of plastic soul that farts along in the background while the 'exuberant singing of Martha Reeves' is replaced by the nasally honks of Jagger and Bowie -
Jagger honks the opening, Bowie honks back and then sometimes they honk in unison and all the while a gaggle of faceless harpies screech along in the background as the wailing counterpoint of the damned.

You see, 'Dancing In The Street' was never conceived as a duet, and the way each try to outdo the other in the alternate lines is comical:
"There'll be swingin', swayin' and records playin' and dancin' in the streets'" moans Bowie with the sardonic delivery of a nightshift worker trying to get some sleep. Exuberant it is not. Bowie has never done exuberance. But that's the iceberg's tip I'm afraid - there are plenty of other things I could pick up on, but you kind of lose the will after a while. Yet despite all this aural pornography I'm still happy to cut the two lads some slack, albeit the kind of slack you would cut an Alzheimer's riddled pensioner who wets the bed.

For a start it's for charity; 1985 was the year of Live Aid so let's get that out of the way. Alvin Lucier could have re-released 'I Am Sitting In A Room' this month and as long as it had the African guitar logo on it then someone would have bought it. Secondly, whatever its faults, this has to be better than any version of song they originally wanted to cover - Bob Marley's 'One Love'. Try as I might, I simply cannot conjure up in my mind what this would have sounded like, but instinct screams it would have had to have been far, far worse.

But apart from all this, the 1985 incarnations of both Jagger and Bowie were drunk on a heady brew of their own egos, a burning desire to still appear down with the kids and fuelled by the abject terror of their own irrelevance. 'Dancing In The Street' is not some minor inkblot on their CVs - Bowie and Jagger, both solo and with the Rolling Stones and Tin Machine, produced enough crap during the eighties to clog a
two foot diameter sewer pipe; 'Dancing In The Street' is a turd, but it's not the biggest turd that either of them produced that decade (think Jagger's 'Let's Work or 'Bowie's 'Glass Spider' for bigger, smellier examples).

The real villains here aren't even those who bought this wretched thing and took it home (it's for charity - remember? Though my goodwill on this argument has now reached the point of no return). No, my ire is aimed four square at the subset of this group who saw merit in the recording and actually listened to it for the sake of enjoyment whilst having no inkling a singer called Martha Reeves even existed. I know from experience that there were rather a lot of these in 1985. I was at school with most of them. Whether they still exist I do not know, but if they do then they should be lined up and shot. In the face. And I'd pull the trigger myself.

1985 UB40 & Chrissie Hynde: I Got You Babe

A strange pairing on paper maybe, but there's history here - Chrissie Hynde gave UB40 their big break in 1980 when she heard them playing in a pub and offered them a support slot on the next Pretenders tour. Written by Sonny Bono, 'I Got You Babe' was a 1965 number one hit for Sonny & Cher , a good natured 'fuck you' to the hippie hating 'man' and a love letter to his then wife Cher. All in one. And therein lies the problem with this or any other version; covering 'I Got You Babe' in any way other than parody will forever and a day be automatically hamstrung by its being so rooted and specific to time, place and person.To sing 'I Got You Babe' and not be Sonny and Cher would be a bit like digitally superimposing the face of you and your wife onto Charles and Diana's wedding footage and then trying to pass the ceremony off as your own. But that's not the only thing that hobbles this attempt at it.

UB40 do what they always do and nail the vocals on to a standard reggae lite groove while Ali Campbell intones the lyrics in same flat, one key delivery that's a dictionary definition of 'business as usual'. Hynde, on the other hand, doesn't even bother to try to keep within the tune or spirit of the music and belts out the words to a hard rock backing track playing in a different key that only she can hear. She overwhelms Campbell's delivery so completely that there's little doubt who would wear the trousers in that particular relationship.

But Ali Campbell and Chrissie Hynde were never even 'an item' and the complete lack of chemistry between them makes the song's message more or less meaningless in this context. Further, t
here's something faintly comical about Hynde's:"Don't let them say your hair's too long" delivery when Campbell looks like he's got a Weetabix balanced on his head. And I'll wager if any bloke asked her "Then put your little hand in mine" then she'd rip it off at the elbow.

If you're going to take the basic 'I Got You Babe' on face value then there's no real harm done, but UB40 and Chrissie Hynde's version adds nothing at all to the original and it's a lazy and formulaic (for UB40) re-hash that put another nail into their coffin of credibility. Though by now you'd have to move the headstone and dig it out from under six feet of earth to be able to hammer it in.

1985 Madonna: Into The Groove

'The past is a foreign country' wrote L.P. Hartley, 'they do things differently there'. And they certainly do. Or did. Madonna for example. In 1985, Madonna sang 'Into The Groove' at the Philadelphia Live Aid concert and I can remember it more clearly than I can recall my drive to work this morning. As a rather cynical and musically pretentious teen, could I have possibly imagined Madonna would be still a major star and singing the same song (but in a more risqué outfit) at age 50? Not on your life.

Thanks to the wonders of You Tube, I have recently watched that 1985 performance again and then, immediately afterwards, compared it with some bootleg footage of her performing the same song in a red mini skirt while skipping a rope on her latest 'Sticky and Sweet' tour. The latter is technically solid, note perfect and choreographed to the nth degree. It's also one of the most ludicrously unsexy, contrived and tombstone stilted things I have ever seen. In fact, the complete antithesis of everything that made 'Into The Groove' such a great song in the first place.

And it is a great song; 'Into The Groove' distils the whole essence of the (then) vibrant contemporary New York club scene into four minutes of neon lit brilliance and beamed it direct into every two bit nightclub in the land. A breathless celebration of the simple pleasures of youth, the song sets its stall out early with Madonna's playful spoken 'you can dance', though as soon as it starts up it's obvious the invitation isn't necessary because there's no doubt as to what you're meant to be doing to this. And by dance, I mean dance. The deceptively simple tune masks a fiendishly twisting rhythm that needs more than a causal shuffle from side to side to do it justice and it's one best performed by young bones.

Which in turn is why when I say 'youth', I don't mean the young at heart - youth proper. When Madonna sings 'Boy you've got to prove your love to me' she means boy, not some middle age bloke sucking in his gut over his too tight Farah's down at the local club after closing time. Which is ironic considering Madonna herself was 26 when she recorded this though you'd never have guessed it. Not middle aged certainly, but not in the first flush of youth either, and yet her enthusiasm and kooky girl next door persona lets her get away with it; in 1985, Madonna was not so distant and removed that you could hear lines like:

"Live out your fantasy here with me

Just let the music set you free
Touch my body, and move in time"

and not feel you were in with a chance. And the basic honesty is an important element in the appeal of the song both lyrically and musically. There is nothing superfluous about 'Into The Groove'; there are no unnecessary samples or overdubs to clutter up the clean groove. Madonna's vocal throws a lasso around the house/dance/pop dance backing, turning a dance track into a dance song.

Madonna was never any great shakes in the vocal stakes and the high notes here crack like thin ice, but it's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job. Her girlish, lost in the music delivery never shuts up, never pauses for breath and it expresses a joy that's infectious, from the heart and genuine in a way that she could only manage before she started acting out the role of Madonna (TM).

With a self penned, self produced number one single that soundtracked a more than credible acting performance in a major movie, it seemed at this moment in time Madonna had the whole world at her feet. And it's a world that she would go on to conquer, but it would be a campaign that would lurch from disaster to triumph and back again via a series of ill advised projects that, because she always had one eye her PR rather than her muse, meant she dropped the ball far more often than she caught it.

The music would become a secondary concern to stage management, image and the constant need for re-invention - you only have to compare her loose and unselfconscious performance on that stage in Philadelphia with her later performances where she behaved in the way she though 'Madonna' should behave to appreciate what 'Into The Groove' had and how it was lost once an overegged dance routine was bolted on to every note in a 'look, I can still cut it' way but which only serves to make a mockery of the 'Only when I'm dancing can I feel this free' message.

And that's not to blame Madonna for getting older. To blame her for no longer sounding young and fresh would be like having a pop at Muhammad Ali for not being world champion anymore. It wouldn't be fair. But in truth the Madonna of 'Into The Groove' didn't stick around for long. She was gone by the next album and in her place came an amorphous figure who, in trying to build on what she had in the beginning, ended up instead knocking it flat and concreting over it. Never again would Madonna sound so effortless, so unforced and so like she was enjoying herself.

1985 Eurythmics: There Must Be An Angel (Playing with My Heart)

From day one, you always got the impression that Annie Lennox was itching to stretch her wings and break free from the Eurythmics' cold synth duo strait jacket and inject some warmth into their music to back the soulful voice she hinted at while in The Tourists. In 1985, she got her wish; 'There Must Be An Angel (Playing with My Heart)' has Lennox emoting for all she's worth over Stewart's pedestrian and understated backing that allows her to do her stuff centre stage completely unhindered.

There's no doubt that Lennox's voice is a powerful device. Never a weak point in the Eurythmics, she can split an octave like shelling peas and sings with a purpose and purity that perfectly complimented their usual detached and icy electronic tales of alienation. Her work on ''There Must Be An Angel' aims Aretha Franklin high, but does it reach the stars? Sadly, it doesn't.

For a start, what seriously hamstrings the song is a set of lyrics that, to my mind anyway, surpass Sting's infamous 'cough/Nabokov' and Des'ree's 'ghost/toast' rhymes in sheer awfulness:

"No-one on earth could feel like this.

I'm thrown and overblown with bliss".

"I walk into an empty room
And suddenly my heart goes "boom""!

The closing verse too has the most complete collection of 'ings' in one place since Barry McGuire 'inged' himself to doomsday on 'Eve Of Destruction':

"I must be hallucinating

Watching angels celebrating.
Could this be reactivating

All my senses dislocating?

and these are every bit as awkward and clumsy on record as they appear written down.

To hammer the tin lid firmly on, the song itself as a whole is lopsided in its construction with each line of the verses ending on an emphatic up note that promises the world, but then fails to resolve itself at the chorus which runs smack into a brick wall and has nowhere to go:

'There must be an angel playing with my heart'.

The 'heart' here rhymes with nothing preceding it, and rather than the uplifting and exhilarating mood the song aims for, it causes it to peter out flat into the awkward silence that follows a badly told joke.
Neither is it helped by Lennox's mistaking of over enthusiastic modulation for soul so that the last word of each line is stretched so far past breaking point as to lose all meaning and become something other than English:

"I walk into an empty roooooooooooooooooooooooooooooom

And suddenly my heart goes "boooooooooooooooooooooooom""

Scat is defintely not Lennox's forte and a Cleo Laine or an Anita O'Day she most definitely isn't (the song is too tightly constructed around its verses to lend itself to improvisation in any case). Far from the outpourings of a soul diva, her warblings come across as the finest, bad, half cut club singer at a low rent wedding in the suburbs.

Stevie Wonder provides a lively harmonica solo, but it sounds like it's been shoehorned in from a different song altogether, solely for the sake of the quality kudos his star name brings and the hope that some of his magic will rub off. But far from adding anything, it's totally at odds with the angelic, otherworldly vibe that Stewart tries to generate with Lennox's multi-tracked voice and top end harmonics and it ends up just being irritating.

'There Must Be An Angel' is as slick and professional as you like, but it's a hollow and joyless experience at heart, a bit like watching, say, Iggy Pop acting in some low budget film. Yes he's ever watchable and doesn't disgrace himself, but all you want is for him to get back to his day job, whip his shirt off and sing ' I Wanna Be Your Dog'. Or in this case, 'Love Is A Stranger'. Though Annie can keep her shirt on if she wants.

1985 Sister Sledge: Frankie

Purportedly a homage to Frank Sinatra, 'Frankie' is light years away from the rampant disco strut of 'We Are Family' or 'Lost In Music' and instead harks back to the sound of the Red Bird girl bands (I can hear 'borrowed' motifs aplenty from 'Leader Of The Pack' in this) complete with fingerclicks and doo-wop 'ooh ooh's', albeit with an smooth and updated R&B production courtesy of the ever ubiquitous Nile Rodgers.

Out go the piledriving walking funk rhythms and in comes a light and breezy groove with ample space to park some jazzy, almost salsa brass interludes and a spongy bass motif that sounds like it's being plucked with a matchstick instead of the usual oboe nail.
And fair enough; with a lyric that's a wistful remembrance of things past rather than the totemistic calls to arms of old, it needs a backing more fitted to soundtrack a winebar than the disco floor.

All of this sounds fine on paper, and it's a fact that 'Frankie' became the Sister's only UK number one but - and it's a big but - it's also one of the least interesting and least memorable songs in their canon. 'Frankie' suffers not so much from sounding nothing like Sister Sledge, but it sounds like it simply has no heart; everything from Rodger's production, the arrangements to the musicians and vocals are all millimetre perfect and never put a foot wrong, but rather than being worked up in the studio by the usual powerhouse Chic duo of Rodgers/Edwards, 'Frankie' was written by an 'outsider' and there's a dry blueprint where the pulse should be.

'Frankie', like some Mannerist painting, is difficult to engage with at any level other than admiration of the superficial virtuosity on display. It would matter not a jot whether you heard it one or one hundred times - repeated plays do not reward in any way because 'Frankie' has no secrets to give up and this probably goes some way to explaining why it gets precious little airplay anymore while 'He's The Greatest Dancer' will still pack any dancefloor. 'Frankie' is an interesting curio that more or less rounded off the Sister's career, but it's not what they are or will be remembered for.

1985 The Crowd: You'll Never Walk Alone

With Band Aid, Geldof and co kickstarted a bandwagon that every deserving cause with a begging bowl was keen to hitch itself to - the charity single. Rather than African famine, money this time was being raised for the families of victims of the Bradford City fire disaster that claimed the lives of 56 football fans in May of that year.

There's no criticism of the ends, but the means leave rather a lot to be desired; does anyone in this world really need another version of this old Rogers and Hammerstein chestnut? Especially one sung by a 'supergroup' led by Gerry Marsden and made up of (amongst others) Keith Chegwin, Jim Diamond, Bruce Forsyth, Jess Conrad, John Conteh, Rolf Harris, Dave Lee Travis, Kiki Dee, Bernie Winters and the Nolan Sisters? Thought not.

It's a faithful and enthusiastic version by numbers, but like 'We Are The World' before it, 'You'll Never Walk Alone' begs the question as to what you do with it once you've bought and taken it home? As merely a token of a good deed done, replay value is zero and I'd suggest the vast majority were slung in the back of the cupboard to gather dust next to the Soda Syphon and Ronco Button Magic. Better by far for Marsden to have re-released his own 1963 version instead and spared us this one, though maybe I'm still pissed that it kept 'Kayleigh' off the number one spot.

1985 Paul Hardcastle: 19

With the world seemingly ever on the brink of a nuclear apocalypse, anti war songs and sloganeering therein were common parlance throughout most of the eighties. Anti cold war that is: being a song that specifically targeted Vietnam, a war over some twelve years previous and one in which the UK had no involvement, '19' appears akin to the square peg hammered into a round hole and about as relevant as a campaign to bring the boys back home from the Crimea.

From this distance, '19' reminds me of Laurie Anderson's 'O Superman' from earlier in the decade; that is, a track that by virtue of its uniqueness stands at odds with the rest of the music in the charts surrounding it and neatly splits opinion between those who see it as a work of depth and genius and those who see it as an irritating novelty to be endured with gritted teeth.

Built around a dry, documentary sourced voice sample, '19' verbally details the after effects of the war on the psyche of US soldiers.
Take away this stuttering narrative and the music behind it looks ahead to the future rather than back to the usual 'Nam soundtrack of guitar soaked and stoned psychedelia; '19' is powered by straight ahead uptempo House, music to dance rather than protest to.

Hardcastle's musical background was steeped in synthesised dance and the four to the floor electronic drum beat rhythm and sparkling keyboard fills were well ahead of the game in 1985; it's certainly brighter and busier than Mr Fingers's definitive Chicago House statement 'Can You Feel It' released the same year, and if you added a thick bassline you'd have the sun kissed sound of New Order's 'Technique' four years early.

House music is something of an acquired taste though, and taken out of the banging environment of a sweaty club in the early hours then it can seem akin to playing paintball in your bathroom instead of out in the woods; it's just not the same. What '19' does, and does well, is to dilute the purity of the genre with a 'message' that you can either take at face value or treat as little more than a novelty backing, albeit one with an element of danger that will appeal to disaffected youth who've seen too much Rambo. Either way, it garners it an audience it would not otherwise have and provides the music with a tempered focal point for the uninitiated to get to grips with.

Probably the most memorable aspect of the song is the recurring gimmicky hiccup of 'N N N N N Nineteen', and whether this is a fitting tribute to the war dead is a moot point. But whatever your viewpoint,
it did both provide the eighties with one of it's most definitive and unique musical moments whilst hanging an albatross round Hardcastle's neck that he's never been able to shake off. It's a burden so heavy that even his official website bears the address paulhardcastle19.com. But better, I suppose, to be remembered for one thing than not to be remembered at all.

1985 Phyllis Nelson: Move Closer

There are times when getting to number one in the UK charts seems akin to playing the National Lottery. All objective notions of fairness and what's just are thrown out the window. We all know of needy and deserving parties who pay their money week after week who should win the jackpot but never do while other....less deserving.... individuals find themselves knee deep in millions that we all know will be spent to no good ends.

'Move Closer' is a slow and slinky smooth ballad that's not quite lovers rock, not quite R&B and not quite jazz. In fact, it's not quite a song at all, being a sequence of almost spoken verse over a slow and spaced out backing groove that only breaks into any kind of purpose on the chorus:

"Move closer.

Move your body real close until we,
Feel like we're really making love".

Whilst Nelson's voice is sensuous enough to appeal to the groin, there's precious little substance or body to the piece to appeal to the head. Granted, this makes it inoffensive, difficult to dislike and ideal fodder for the typical eighties winebar or the last dance at the club, it also makes it unmemorable to the average listener and just a little boring.

'Move Closer' is the sort of thing that Sade used to do and do so much better, but Ms Adu never had a sniff of a number one hit. Why the British public took this to their hearts in sufficient quantities to make it the best selling single of the week is a mystery, but then the National Lottery moves in mysterious ways too; there will always be more losers than winners and fate's lightning only struck once for Nelson. 'Move Closer' has ultimately recruited her to the ranks of the 'one hit wonder' brigade.

1985 USA For Africa: We Are The World

There was always the air of inevitability after Band Aid's roping together of the 'cream' of British artists in the cause of famine relief that the Americans would follow suit with a song of their own. And sure enough, it came a few months later in the form of 'We Are The World', though the 'USA For Africa' banner actually stands for 'United Support of Artists for Africa'.

And what a line up of artists too - Harry Belafonte, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson (and the rest of the Jackson family), Waylon Jennings, Diana Ross, Lionel Richie, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon et al - it certainly puts the likes of Tony Hadley and Bananarama into perspective. And with a line up like that and a song written by Jackson and Richie, 'We Are The World' should be some kind of masterpiece right? Errr, no.

The biggest problem with 'We Are The World' is that, unlike Band Aid where (Bono apart), the performers were content enough to just get on with things and leave their day job behind, when Springsteen, Dylan, Wonder etc get up to sing their lines, there is no doubt that they are playing the role of Springsteen, Dylan, Wonder etc. The hugely differing vocal styles make for a disjointed and rather abrasive listen that borders on parody. Rory Bremner could have provided the vocals in place of most of the acts here and no one would have been any the wiser (he'd have had great fun with Cyndi Lauper who here sounds like a bad karaoke version of Cyndi Lauper having a tantrum).

Unlike the Band Aid single, 'We Are The World' is not a Christmas song and does not directly address famine in Africa. Instead, it delivers the sort of feel-good anthem of hope with just a hint of Christianity that would work equally well as either an advert for Coke or the Eurovision entry of any number of former Soviet states keen to put a history of war crimes or ethnic cleansing behind them:
"We can't go on pretending day by day, that someone, somewhere will soon make a change. We are all a part of God's great big family and the truth, you know love is all we need". And that's the message. Such naive optimism is something you're either going to hate with a cynical vengeance (who are these multi-millionaires to tell anyone "We are the ones who make a brighter day so let's start giving"), or else ignore because after all it's for a good cause.

As slick and professional as it is, 'We Are The World' is a means to an end and nothing more. The starburst line up plays a similar role to the students trying to cram as many people into a mini as they can - it's a spectacle that provides the consideration and justification for the handing over of your hard earned cash solely to benefit other parties. Once you've seen the students try/fail in their task, you walk away and never think about it again for the rest of your life. Similarly, I can't for the life of me imagine anyone actually wanting to listen to this in the privacy of their own homes once they've bought it. Not even at Christmas.

1985 Phil Collins And Philip Bailey: Easy Lover

Seeing the name 'Phil Collins' anywhere in the 'artist' title of a single is never a good start, a bit like a football team being deducted ten points before the season even kicks off. There is something about this eighties Renaissance Man that gets under my skin like few others, so it's a surprise to report that 'Easy Lover' is one of the few Collins tracks that doesn't have me reaching for the 'off' button whenever it's played on the radio.

The secret to this probably lies in the fact that it's a joint venture between Collins, Bailey and Nathan East, with the pedigree of the latter managing to tame the worst excesses of the former. That's not to say they've been banished entirely mind - Collins is in the producer's chair and 'Easy Lover' fair drips with his trademark 'Wagner in a tin bucket' drum sound and bleached out soulless ambience.

Had it been a solo endeavour then it would have sounded as unbearable as the majority of his output, but Bailey is no amateur when it comes to providing a shot of genuine gospel fuelled soul and his counterpoint vocals not only show up Collin's own voice for what it really is, it elevates 'Easy Lover' into a third dimension whereas the Collins production does his best to hammer it flat.

Important too not to underestimate the influence of Nathan East in the final product. Collins' own solo stuff tends to run on a straight rail from open to close, but East brings his Jazz chops to bear in keeping the song moving constantly, shifting keys like a jumping jack and not allowing it to settle in any one place for long. Sure it sounds a bit dated to modern ears, but it's busy enough to never drag or bore and Daryl Stuermer's Eddie Van Halen-like choppy guitar riffs and solo remain a joy (albeit a buried too low in the mix one).

'Easy Lover' is a prime cut of eighties soft rock that, in the final analysis, boils down to a chicken and egg scenario ; it's hard to tell whether it's a good song ruined by Collins' input or an bad song immeasurable improved by Bailey and East. For my own part, the jury is out and has been since 1985.

Similarly since 1985, I've never really 'got' what 'Easy Lover' is all about. The bulk of the lyrics tell of a flighty sounding girl, 'the kind of girl you dream of' indeed, one who will 'get a hold on you believe it' before 'she will play around and leave you. Leave you and deceive you'. That doesn't sound much like an easy lover. Sounds more like a lot of trouble and hard work to me.

Monday, 1 June 2009

1985 Dead Or Alive: You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)

In our modern age of downloads, Pop Idols, MP3s MySpaces and the like, the very title 'You Spin My Round (Like A Record)' stands out as a stark anachronism, a throwback from olde dayes gone by when people actually went to the shops for their music and it came delivered in a tangible form.

It couldn't be more out of time if it were called 'You Spin My Round (Like An Edison Wax Cylinder) or (Like The Wheel On My Penny Farthing'), but if you were to judge the song on modern sensibilities, then the names of 'Pete Burns' and producers 'Stock, Aitken and Waterman' would also raise more of a knowing smirk than any noises of credibility.

Not so in 1985 though; Burns still 'only' looked and acted like a Boy George wannabe and the 'SAW' team had yet to find the electrogum formula that led to equal measures of hailing and hatred throughout the remainder of the decade. But even if the infrastructure looks shonky at first blush, the end product stood apart from virtually everything else surrounding it in the charts at the time, and now some twenty five years on it stubbornly transcends its 1985 roots.

First thing that hits when the song starts up is its density. A Hi NRG rhythm hammers out a beat over a musique concrete backing of neo Kraftwerk electronic percussion and the heady swirl of a mutant musical box that's opened at random to let the sound out. There barely seems space for a vocal track, but Burns barges his way through the noise and the opening:

"Yeah I, I got to know your name"

is an arresting statement of intent that grabs you by the collar and immediately tames the ferocious backing music into playing second fiddle to what he has to say. And it's not much in terms of content, being just a breathless chat up of an individual of undisclosed sex. Yet Burns keeps the words coming in an excited torrent that belies their basic content and are a precursor to the subliminal dissection of a night on the piss that was Underworld's 'Born Slippy', making the song an ideal soundtrack for a Saturday night down in Clubland and one that almost supplies it's own neon signage.

Hindsight has revealed that 'You Spin My Round (Like A Record)' was a one off in the careers of all parties involved in its creation. Dead Or Alive never recorded anything as remotely interesting again, and SAW soon settled into churning out a production line of identikit hits for interchangeable 'pop stars' that showed not one tenth of the imagination and risk taking of this, their first number one.

Almost to a song, the rest of their output has dated about as well as the Penny Farthing and now only tends to be revived in the name of irony, nostalgia or just pure kitsch. 'You Spin My Round (Like A Record)', on the other hand, still gives off sparks and with just a few tweaks here and there it could easily be passed off as being recorded yesterday. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the open door and clearly marked path to the future were never followed and everyone concerned subsequently took a step backwards.

1985 Elaine Paige And Barbara Dickinson: I Know Him So Well

After the break-up of ABBA, Benny and Bjorn hooked up with Tim Rice to pen the musical 'Chess', an odd tale about a love triangle playing out at the World Chess Championship being held in Italy. It doesn't exactly inspire the imagination when put like that, but no matter - no knowledge of chess is required to appreciate 'I Know Him So Well'. Which is probably just as well.

It's difficult to regard this as a 'single' per se; it's a song written to be interpreted rather than to be associated with any particular artist, though Paige and Dickinson are a textbook definition of 'a safe pair of hands' when it comes to material like this. Although obviously part of an ongoing narrative, it's clear enough in premise to stand apart from the story (much like, say 'Memory' or 'Send In The Clowns' can) and it gives the dual viewpoints of the wife and mistress of one of one of the male characters as they count off his vices and virtues and each come to the same conclusion independently of each other.

As a song it's pure theatre, a guaranteed latter day show stopper for the understudies and chorus girls to drool over in a 'one day that will be me' kind of way. The interlocking lyrics and interplay of the two voices provides irony drama aplenty as the women mistakenly believe that only they have the key to unlock what the twin perspectives reveal to be a very predictable man, and the chorus swirls to a climax of intensity that's very reminiscent of a late ABBA track.

And ironically, 'I Know Him So Well' would have worked far better had it been sung by the markedly different voices of Agnetha and Anna-Frid because, as competent and professional as Ms's Paige and Dickinson may be, their vocals are similar almost to the point of being interchangeable and this defeats the object of the song somewhat. Without the visuals, it's difficult to tell who is singing what here and the whole loses intensity like a slow puncture because of it.

Of course, there would be no such issues when watching it on stage, but without the third dimension the Paige/Dickinson version suffers but through no fault of it's own; at base level, the song is a good and memorable one built by a team of craftsmen well versed in their trade.

1985 Foreigner: I Want To Know What Love Is

The eighties and soft rock power ballads go together like Hindley and Brady - that is, a coupling based more by infamy than anything worthwhile and one that would have left the world a better place had the twain never met. Lovers leavin', lovers dyin', lovers not understandin' or lovers not appearin' in the first place - any one of these scenarios was staple fodder for the genre and excuse enough to break out the major chords and the dry ice. 'I Want To Know What Love Is' fits four square into the last of these scenarios, being an anguished cry of......well, of wanting to know what love is.

First off, kudos to the very English Mick Jones for presenting a grammatically correct title rather than the Americanised 'wanna' that Lou Gramm sings throughout. Yes, although Foreigner are an Anglo American hybrid, there was never any doubt that the Anglo faction have always known which side their bread is peanut buttered on in terms of their musical output. And in terms of 'I Want To Know What Love Is', that means a song that would sound more at home as the last dance at a High School Prom than a Sixth Form disco. Far more at home in fact.

The soft focus, synthesiser led opening aims for the solemn gravitas of a hymn but falls short of its intent and instead arrives as inoffensive and unsubstantial as moonlight on water, a sound virtually indistinguishable from so many other American soft rock bands of the era - it doesn't scream out 'it's the new Foreigner single', and taking it on a blind taste test then you could be forgiven for mistaking it for Toto, REO Speedwagon, Mr Mister, Journey or any other band of that ilk. Not that this is anything to be proud of, but it was a formula that shifted the units in the eighties.

So much for the music. Of the vocals, Gramm's voice has never been a weak point but there's something faintly embarrassing about his impassioned delivery of club footed lyrics like
"I gotta take a little time, a little time to think things over. I better read between the lines, in case I need it when I'm older" as if he was imparting the sage like wisdom of the ancients, and the cumulative effect of the words and music of the opening minute is that 'I Want To Know What Love Is' should by rights be counted out cold on the canvas.

But, against the odds, it rallies at the chorus which is preceded by a startlingly awkward key change before taking the earlier hymn like aspiration and,
by adding a gospel choir backing from the New Jersey Mass Choir, running with it into a different animal altogether. The gospel overtones provide an upbeat counterpoint to Gramm's downbeat vocals in the way that only gospel can, helped on its way by the direct and to the point lyrics that eschew bad metaphor for a simple plea that most anyone can relate to:"I wanna know what love is. I want you to show me".

There's time for another batch of clunky verse until the chorus comes round again, but after that it's a full two minute reprise and retread of it to the end with the choir gaining prominence all the time, making for a coda joyous enough to almost block out the bad work at the start. It leaves 'I Want To Know What Love Is' as a song both in and out of its time, but by getting halfway there it's still far superior product to Toto, REO Speedwagon, Mr Mister, Journey or any other band of that ilk who rarely got as close.