Sunday, 26 July 2009

1986 Jackie Wilson: Reet Petite

Thanks to the miracles of television advertising, 1986 saw the return of a spate of 1960's songs to the UK charts on the back of Levi's series of evocative adverts for their 501 jeans. Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye (or rather their estates) both benefited from the renewed interest in their work, but contrary to what you might read in other, less scrupulously informed (ahem) sites than this, 'Reet Petite' was never used as part of any such advertising campaign. So why the sudden appearance of a thirty year old song at the top of the charts? Well I think two things play a part here, the promotional video and (context, remember?) the time of year.

First, the video. London based animators Giblets produced (entirely for their own benefit) a highly inventive claymation video to go with the song that played out like Bruce Bickford on Prozac. After a screening on BBC's Arena programme, the interest generated in both it and the song resulted in both being released as two sides of a complimentary package.

What this means is that, with this re-release, it's hard to divorce Jackie Wilson the soul/R&B innovator of the original 1957 Brunswick recording (Coral in the UK) with the Morph-like dayglo colourful kiddie friendly plasticine figure of the 1986 model. And it leaves me to ponder which of the two I'm meant to be reviewing here. Certainly the song remains unchanged, and it's a testament to Wilson's talent that he can leapfrog the decades and generations and still sound as thrilled to tell you about the sweetest girl you'll ever meet as he did when he first met her in '57. But all the context of the original is lost.

That it's original success funded the fledging Motown label and hence a hundred other musical careers is forgotten. That Wilson was an entertainment maverick from the mould of Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway who stood out against the dichotomy of straight rock & roll and the last gasps of tin pan alley in the 1957 chart is irrelevant. Who cares anymore and does it matter in light of its new context where the forced jollity of the gooning figure in the video reduces Wilson to little more than a cartoon cipher fit only to entertain the kids with his cheery vocal stylings at Christmas (the second factor to play a part in its second bite of the cherry)? That part most certainly does matter. To me anyway.

Am I being snobbish about all this? Probably. But seeing 'Reet Petite' back in the charts this way is like packaging Krug Clos du Mesnil in an alcopops bottle and then serving it up in a coffee mug. In hindsight, I know that further re-releases of some of his other singles ensured that the scope of Wilson's output was shown in the round, but I think most of my annoyance is aimed at the fickleness and vagaries of the record buying public who can lap up drek like the De Burgh and Berry singles while ignoring artists of talent and stature who are left to languish in the poverty of obscurity until they are resurrected by some freak lightning bolt of novelty. Like a funny video. But you pays your money and you takes your choice.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

1986 The Housemartins: Caravan Of Love

A major US hit for Isley-Jasper-Isley just the year before, 'Caravan Of Love' was a re-statement of Chris Jasper's born again Christian beliefs and his attempt to evangelise them to a wider audience. On face value, The Housemartins' acapella cover version looks little more than a cynical and gimmicky attempt to cash in on the sentimental Christmas market by a band that always set itself up to know better, but scratch below the surface and there's more going on than meets the eye.

Self professed 'fourth best band in Hull', The Housemartins released a steady flow of indie jangle in the mid eighties that hid a welter of biting social commentary and attacks on moral hypocrisy that came wrapped in a left wing slant. And those politics are important when considering 'Caravan Of Love'; although vocalist Paul Heaton has claimed himself an atheist, The Housemartins' lyrics always contained elements of a skewed Christianity in their world view. There's no doubt that Jasper wrote 'Caravan Of Love' with Jesus on his mind, but The Housemartins' own ideology subtly shifts the emphasis of the lyrics until become almost a call for Marx's proletariat to rise up and throw off their chains:
"Are you ready for the time of life, its time to stand up and fight. So alright hand in hand we take a caravan to the marble land. One by one we gonna stand up with pride, one that cant be denied. Stand up"

To get the full body of evidence for this, it's illuminating to watch the accompanying promo video that saw the band, with crucifixes shaved into the sides of their head, larking about in a church and shuffling around on their knees in mock reverence with hoodies doubling as a monk's cowl. Far from the saccharine sell out the hardcore fans dismissed it as at the time, 'Caravan Of Love' is actually quite a subversive package to be at number one at Christmas. And context is everything - I don't think this would have fared quite so well had it been released mid summer, but then the message would have been diluted too.

As for the recording itself, the Isley-Jasper-Isley original lends itself well to an acapella arrangement and The Housemartins don't perform any radical makeover of the tune and are content to merely reproduce the main melody note for note and replace the backing instrumentisation with their own multi tracked vocals.
Does it work? Well there's certainly something charmingly amateur about it, especially the slightly grating call and response sections, but it's a refreshingly honest and earthy recording that suggests it would sound much the same if they came round to your house to sing it in person. It stood out from the rest of the overproduced flotsam in the charts around it and this no doubt helped it catch the ear of the record buying public at Christmas (The Flying Pickets had mined a similar seam in 1983).

And because of this, it has also aged far better than most of other the number ones of 1986, and at this twenty plus year remove the accusations of 'sell out' (a damaging thing to be accused of by the grey overcoated, Stalinist 'Indie Credibility Police' of the times) have faded like Ozymandias's statute.
But sod them, I never had much time for such arguments anyway - I liked 'Caravan Of Love' in 1986 and I still like it now. There are plenty that don't, but I bet they moan Christmas is overly commercial and starts earlier every year too. They enjoy it all the same mind, even though they'd be the last to admit it.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

1986 Europe: The Final Countdown

They like their metal in Sweden. So much so they started their own sub-genre in the 90's - Swedish Death Metal, a movement that took itself very seriously indeed. All corpse paint and Satan, if you took the piss they'd more as likely come round and set fire to your house. Or the local church. Yes, that seriously.

Before all that carry on though, Sweden gave us Europe (which is ironic given that Sweden wasn't in Europe in 1986. But I digress). But far from the black clothes and blacker heart of death metal, Europe were firmly schooled in look by the glam metal bands that emerged from and centred around Los Angeles in the early 80's like Motley Crue, Ratt, Poison et al.

Led by suitably metally monikered Joey Tempest, Europe certainly looked like they'd just wandered out of some dive bar on Sunset Strip with their scarecrows in spandex get-up, but whereas the best of the glam metal acts had an edge to take your head off, 'The Final Coutdown' is junior metal, rock for the sort of people who found Bon Jovi a bit too raucous.

True, it hits most of the right metal buttons - it has a strident pace and a baroque guitar solo that you have to move your fingers very quickly to when playing air guitar (a very important attribute for a metal song), but it also has that (in)famous opening and recurring keyboard riff that was no doubt meant to sound like a dramatic overture akin to Gabriel blowing his horn on Judgement Day, but ends up sounding like the wheezy rasp of a troupe of Brownies playing on kazoos. It's pure cheese and has no place in any tune aimed at the mean metal mutha market.

And that about sums it up, 'The Final Countdown' is a wet and gutless affair that seems to have no means of justifying it's own existence. It's too limp to headbang to, too lumbering to dance to and it
doesn't make you want to run around the world waving your arms the way the best metal does, the way the soon to emerge 'big four' of Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer would, putting glam rock to the sword in the process.

And yet for all this, 'The Final Countdown' is like the unruly puppy that rips up your slippers and shits on your carpet; yes it's bloody annoying and yes you want to kill it stone dead, but you don't - one look from it's pleading, trusting eyes is enough to melt the hardest of hearts and in the same way, that opening riff and Tempest's histrionic delivery of:

"We're heading for Venus and still we stand tall
Cause maybe they've seen us and welcome us all"

always makes me smile in a way that the over earnestness of a Bon Jovi never could and which means at least 'The Final Countdown' is good for something. Which is more than you could ever say about Ratt.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

1986 Berlin: Take My Breath Away

There are certain occasions within these years where typically 'eighties' keynotes and milestones cross like ley lines to produce an all encompassing iconic statement of the decade wherein the various component parts become inseparable from each other. Think of De Lorean cars and you get 'Back To The Future', think of Michael Jackson and you get Moonwalking. And vice versa. Think of 'Take My Breath Away' and it automatically leads to that paean to homoerotic men in their flying machines that is 'Top Gun'.

Subtitled 'Love Theme From Top Gun', 'Take My Breath Away' isn't quite the predictable power ballad you might expect. It doesn't conform to the standard slowburn verse building to a pant ripping chorus format that is beloved of the genre. Instead, it moves in languid, otherworldly fits and starts on the wave of a hypnotically loping bass motif that descends to keep Terri Nunn's breathlessly wandering lead vocal
in check . The effect is a dreamlike sensation, a structureless structure that in parts recalls the Cocteau Twins at their most conservative; it's not something anyone makes a beeline for on the karaoke machine at an eighties night.

At yet at its core, and for all Ms Nunn's sterling efforts, the vistas and expanses of 'Take My Breath Away' fail to stir any emotion other than mild boredom. It's a track specifically engineered to soundtrack scenes of long, meaningful looks under wide open skies, slo-mo explosions and dresses fluttering evocatively in the wind. In that aspect it works just fine, but in that aspect too it's as mechanical as the F14's that dart around in the background while all this is going on. Every note sounds as if it's been carefully generated by an 'eighties musical gimmick' machine cranked up to 10 to fit a pre-set template based on visuals, leaving Nunn howling into a void that lacks a single human touch.

That touch is something you have to add yourself and it makes 'Take My Breath Away' an experience b
est enjoyed solo, preferably through headphones while playing out a starring role in your own head movie as you gaze out the window of the 7am train taking you to work. Unless of course you do fly fighter planes for a living, in which case it's the best song ever recorded

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

1986 Nick Berry: Every Loser Wins

For those not in the know, Nick Berry was a jobbing actor who played Simon 'Wicksy' Wicks in long running soap opera EastEnders. A popular storyline of the time involved some of the young guns within the cast forming a band (called 'The Banned', which always made me wonder why 'The Banned' of Little Girl fame never sued) and recording a bunch of tracks with the aim of making it big.

Such was the popularity of the show that the third wall was inevitably breached and an awful single 'Something Outta Nothing' was duly released (number 12 in 1986 in case you're interested). However, for a number of weeks while this excitement was playing out, Simon 'Wicksy' Wicks could be seen moping around on screen, sat at a piano playing 'Every Loser Wins'.

All this of course is lost to the mists of time, nobody remembers Simon 'Wicksy' Wicks anymore and all that's left behind is this song. So what of it? Well first off, it's difficult to know who is singing this - is it a Nick Berry track, a Simon 'Wicksy' Wicks track or a Nick 'Simon "Wicksy" Wicks' Berry conglomerate? The philosophical conundra are legion, but when you're considering something as terrible as 'Every Loser Wins' as the base matter, then all such issues fall away like dust in the wind.

'Every Loser Wins' was written by TV stalwart Simon Park, who dutifully 'borrowed' the basic melody from his own 'Always There'. It's a piano led ballad that builds to a 'climax' of booming electronic drums that aspire to Wagnerian drama, but end up sounding like the sort of cheap, rubbish fireworks of no discernable origin that are sold from the backs of cars at boot sales. I don't think he burned too much midnight oil over the lyrics either:

"Every loser wins, once the dream begins

In time we'll see, fate holds the key"

What on earth does that mean? Every loser wins? Does that mean that every winner loses too? And how can anybody truly be said to 'win' or 'lose' anything if it's a matter of fate rather than freewill? Is Nick/Simon making some post-modern statement on the concept of value? Or is it just a bunch of vagaries that try to instil a sense of lofty intellectualism through their very vagueness?

"Suddenly we seemed to stop and lose our way

But did it really matter anyway?
For that was yesterday
And we must live for now"

I know which side of the coin my money's on.

To get the full impact of the sheer audacity of all this, you need to have a listen while watching the promo video that has Nick 'Simon "Wicksy" Wicks' Berry, floppy of fringe and beady of eye, intoning these lyrics full frontal into the camera in the manner of someone reciting one of Dante's love poems in the original Italian, but with a voice that, if the word 'simpering' didn't already exist, it would have to be invented specifically to describe it.

'Every Loser Wins' was the second best selling single of 1986, it even won an Ivor Novello award, but in truth it's a song for people who don't really like music but who think they do. And while I'm here, do the E and S of the sleeve being in different colours have any significance? Is it a code of such complexity so as to make Da Vinci's look like the crossword in The Sun, or am I spending far too much time over all this nonsense? For once, I have my answer.......

Monday, 20 July 2009

1986 Madonna: True Blue

Though she would happily 'borrow' from anyone and anywhere to shape her image, Madonna only rarely looked back to the past for her music, yet it's the sound of the past that inspires 'True Blue'. From Madonna's opening 'Hey, listen' we are firmly in Motown (or more specifically, Supremes) territory, typified by the strident lead vocal that's complimented by an all girl backing providing an alternate supplementary and counter melody. Play this back to back with 'Where Did Our Love Go' and you'll see what I mean.

With 'True Blue', the music takes a back seat to the relentless waves of interlocking vocal harmony that carry it along rather than the usual heavy dance beat and it's restless, never sitting still for a second. With a musical backing, it's not pure doo wop but the structures and intricacies of the genre inform the structure of 'True Blue' just as they did for the best of The Supremes' output. It may sound simplistic and throwaway, but there's a lot more going on under the bonnet that simply a few pistons pumping.

Allegedly a love letter to then hubby Sean Penn, the light-hearted tone of 'True Blue' is a welcome distraction from the cold and calculated precision that normally goes hand in hand with Team Madonna. By not trying quite so hard as usual, and with neither a controversial subject matter or video (apart from Madonna's attempts to cast herself as some psuedo Monroe figure), 'True Blue' can be enjoyed at face value as a breezily retro (but not kitsch) homage to the music Madonna must have heard on local radio when growing up in Detroit, the Motor City itself.

She sounds like she's having a blast anyway, so what a shame that, since her divorce to Penn, she doesn't play it live anymore and also banished it from her 'Immaculate Collection' hits album. The song deserves better and Madonna would do well to lighten up a bit more often.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

1986 The Communards: Don't Leave Me This Way

In viewing this through the telescope of time, it's very hard to convey just how threatening a figure the diminutive Jimmy Somerville actually cut in certain sectors of mid eighties Britain. Openly gay, actively political and fiercely left wing - in the Conservative ruled, Clause 28 landscape of 1986 Jimmy Somerville was making a statement just by being Jimmy Somerville. And just in case anyone was in any doubt as to where their political sympathies lay, naming his post Bronski Beat band 'The Communards' marked a statement of intent as sure as Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door. It's the past again, that foreign country.

Times change, and it all this seems like so much small beer in these more enlightened days, but my own memory can testify to the fact that there were plenty of people who were not comfortable with seeing him sat at number one, a feeling probably intensified by the fact he wasn't the spitting, snarling, easy to hate bogey man of a Johnny Rotten or Marilyn Manson but instead came across as a genuine chap who sang like a choirboy.

And therein lies the rub with anything Somerville turned or turns his hand to - that voice is very much an acquired taste. It's something you either love or hate and I'm afraid for my own part I've never much cared for his helium warble no matter what he's singing. I have the same problem to a lesser extent with Neil Young and with Rush to a greater one, and it's a dislike that's only amplified when such a vocal is covering a Philly soul classic that happens to be a favourite of mine.

Originally sung by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (with Teddy Pendergrass on vocals), The Communard's take the later Thelma Houston hit version as its template,
but the passing of the baton from the soul giants of Pendergrass and Houston to the not soul giant of Somerville represents a very bad fumble.

It needn't have been calamitous - had The Communards re-tooled and tailored to suit their own means and ends the way, for example, Soft Cell did with 'Tainted Love' then they could have pulled something special out of the fire. But they didn't. True, they may have grafted on a backing of speedy Hi NRG electronica (as was their wont with all their output), but it still apes Houston's version to the letter, albeit in the way that a Cylon apes a human. When they appear, the token background brass interjections emphasise only too well a package of pasteurised soul that bypasses all attempts to truly present the song as it was written and instead tries to emulate the white boy sound of Wham! at their most danceable.

It's a matter of common observation that Wham! themselves were never averse to wheeling out standard funk and soul moulds as the basis of their tunes in a way that let you pick out their influences in a 'Ah, that's what they've been listening to today' kind of way. George Michael though was far too savvy to push his vision through branding it directly onto somebody else's song, but Somerville and co simply don't have his songwriting talents.

'Don't Leave Me This Way' is bright and lively but it's an egg blown clean of it's contents, leaving behind just the shell to identify what it once was. All heart has been removed and I honestly cannot listen to more than a minute of this without itching to dig out one of the other versions. A tart and clichéd viewpoint maybe, but an honest one nevertheless. 'Don't Leave Me This Way' was the best selling single of 1986. Ironically, it was also one of its most superfluous.

Friday, 17 July 2009

1986 Boris Gardiner: I Want To Wake Up With You

Boris Gardiner had already appeared in the UK charts way back in 1970 with his reggaefied take on Binge's 'Elizabethan Serenade' retitled 'Elizabethan Reggae', but since then he'd maintained a radio silence. Sixteen years is a hell of a gap between singles and it makes 'I Want To Wake Up With You' a surprising number one from a surprising source.

You'd think that a solo single from the former bassist with The Upsetters would come with a reggae thump deep enough to move furniture around the room, but not a bit of it - 'I Want To Wake Up With You' plays out to a laid back, lovers rock groove which, when hitched to Gardiner's no need to hurry vocal, creates a relaxed ambience as soothing as lying submerged in a warm bath.

And though it's nice while it lasts, even the warmest of baths will get cold if you stay in there long enough and 'I Want To Wake Up With You' slightly outstays its welcome when it's sheer repetition ceases to sound like a hypnotic mantra and starts bordering on the slightly creepy and obsessional. This feeling is not helped by the video that had Boris directing the lyrics toward a nameless woman who he seemed to be following around and who in turn had no idea he was watching her:

"I want to wake up with you

I want to reach out and know that you're there
I want you to be the first thing that I see
I want to wake up with you"

It's almost a prologue to The Police's 'Every Breath You Take', though I'm sure Boris meant no harm. And I say it's a surprising number one because on the face of it there is nothing here that sets 'I Want To Wake Up With You' apart from the scores of other identikit niche reggae ballads that get released every year; it's a harmless enough diversion in its own way, but there's little here that warrants repeated plays.

Putting it in the context of its release though, it was maybe the right song at the right time, one that tapped further into the same vein of public sentimentality that de Burgh had opened and in its way it's a natural successor to 'The Lady In Red', being a statement of intent of what the night had to offer after Chris had stopped darncing with her. And besides, any reggae song will automatically sound a hundred times better in high summer with the sun shining so maybe Gardiner did just get lucky, but better by far to see this at number than what preceded it.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

1986 Chris de Burgh: The Lady In Red

Firstly, time for a confession. Back in 1986 I was an upper sixth former with a hopeless crush on a lower sixth girl. Bright as my passion burned, for her own part she did a damn fine job of not so much as acknowledging my existence. Being mildly stalker-ish about it all, through my 'investigations' I found out that she was a Chris de Burgh fan and so with a reasoning fueled by testosterone, I thought  if I became a fan too then she'd be bound to notice and fall in love with me on the basis of this common ground (reason has never been my forte).
And so one fateful weekend afternoon I went into town and came away with three albums by the great man. Yes, the punky looking girl at the WH Smith counter raised an eyebrow and a smirk when I laid my purchases on her counter, but what did I care of her mockery; these three pieces of vinyl were to me the keys to the gates of Eden and in buying them I was already halfway over the threshold to the land of milk and honey.
In hindsight, it would be all too easy to dismiss all this carry on as the lust blinkered antics of an immature nitwit, but I'm not going to let myself off that easily. I was sixteen at the time, plenty old enough to know better and besides, I did actually like some of this stuff. 
There, I've said it - I was a teenage Chris de Burgh fan. Happy? Not all of it by any means, but did genuinely believe that 'Don't Pay The Ferryman' contained some deep philosophical message in its lyrics, freshly culled from the wisdom of the ancients: "Don't pay the ferryman, don't even fix a price. Don't pay the ferryman...(dramatic pause)......until he gets you to the other side'!!!
Even if it wasn't exactly philosophy, it was still sound advice, so thank you Chris. And then not satisfied with that, I even sent a cheque for £19.50 for 'Chris de Burgh - The Video' that was advertised in one of the albums. I must have had it bad. Oh dear, dark days indeed, but in my defence I have to say that nothing, not even the promise of my unrequited lover climbing naked into my bed with a rose between her teeth would have prompted me to admit a liking for 'The Lady In Red', genuinely or otherwise. Because it's awful.
There's no doubt that de Burgh is sincere in his aim in elevating this totemistic 'lady in red' to a Rosebud muse for him to swoon over, but his sincerity somehow makes the end product all the worse. For what we have here is a solemn, low key autopilot backing of pedestrian tedium that Chris, lost in his moment of clarity, mumbles away to himself over in a sing/speak way that PUTS the emphasis on CERTAIN WORDS and phrases IN the erratic manner of a man trying to keep Alzheimer's at bay by practicing word association. Even then his pronunciation leaves a lot to be desired - the way Chris emotes 'darrnce' instead of 'dance' goes through me like a hot poker in the eye, while the strangled, elongated modulation of 'reeeeeedddddddd' on the chorus puts me in mind of nothing less than a man in pain. 
No, I'm sorry, but I could never pretend to like 'The Lady In Red', not even for the promise of teenage kicks; there's simply nothing about it to like. As a package it aspires to be a meditation on love, a statement of hushed, almost religious grandeur, but to these ears it's little more than an over sugared dollop of treacle that's only given form by the sheer force of repetition of that "the lady in reeedddd" refrain which, over the course of its four minute running time, wears me down to a white flag waving submissions where I'd do anything to make it stop.  
And in case you're wondering, no my ploy didn't work and I swear I left school without my distant love ever even knowing my name. Come to think on it, that video never arrived either. So cheers for all that Chris. You git.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

1986 Madonna: Papa Don't Preach

Growing up in public is never easy, especially when your formative years are spent flaunting your like a virginity to the world in white frilly undies and a 'Boy Toy' belt buckle. But these things were always transitionary; Madonna is many things, but she's no fool and she would have known full well before she started on that particular road that there was no long term career to be had from travelling it.

And so, for 1986, out went the tresses, baubles and bangles and in came the leathers, a short bleached fifties style crop and a new direction. Whereas the Madonna of previous was a good time girl all about holidays and getting into the groove, 'Papa Don't Preach' presents a stab at social commentary, in this case an unexpected teenage pregnancy:

"Papa I know you're going to be upset

'Cause I was always your little girl
But you should know by now I'm not a baby"

It would have been interesting if Madonna had meant this as a kind of logical character progression to show what happens to girls who dress and act the way she was doing barely twelve months previous, but I honestly don't think she was capable of being as self critical or self aware enough to entertain such a notion - I should have added above that growing up in public can be especially hard when you're in total denial of the fact. Madonna, lest we forget, was 28 years old when she sang this and in the 'school' sections of the video, she looked it.

No little girl certainly, and as such there's something very cynical about the execution here. It's as if Madonna isn't so much highlighting the moral dilemmas of gym slip mums as trying to convince the world that she could herself potentially fall into that demographic. Madonna always did take great pains to keep the portrait in the attic firmly hidden away, even if it does sometimes find the key and make a quick break for freedom. But that's up to her I guess, what of the song?

Told from the singer's point of view, at heart 'Papa Don't Preach' is a model of conservatism. Even the title harks back to something akin to the Victorian in attitude (does anybody really speak like that? Really?) No stranger to baiting the Catholic church, the same folk she was hell bent on pissing off would be nodding their head sagely at her pleas for her father's approval in her no hint of abortion decision of 'But I made up my mind, I'm keeping my baby', even if they did wince at her sandpaper rough delivery of it.

And that's the main problem with 'Papa Don't Preach', it's basic track is a continuation of the dance/pop hybrid genre that Madonna would mine from that day to this, but her delivery suggests something far more worthy and substantial, like she had something she wanted to say and only some faux vocal grandstanding could possibly convey the enormity of it all.

But Madonna simply isn't that kind of singer, she never was and whenever she tries to express the determination of the lyric, it comes out as a strangled squawk of childish petulance rather than defiance.
What saves the day is producer Steven Bray's ad libbed insertions of bright, almost flamenco guitar and bursts of gothic strings that add colour and relish to what would otherwise be a pretty plain and by the numbers offering.

'Papa Don't Preach' is not typical of Madonna's output and she had very little hand in it's writing, though it was obviously meant to be a major statement of intent. True enough, it did raise a few eyebrows in 1986, but unlike the left field shift of Presley when he found his conscience and sang the timeless and still searing 'In The Ghetto', 'Papa Don't Preach' now plays as a quaint, typically eighties period piece with about as much cutting edge resonance as a George Formby double entendre. Perhaps realising the project was not a success and that such a 'good girl' approach went against everything she appeared to be setting herself up to be, Madonna would only rarely again stray from the path she knew best.

Monday, 13 July 2009

1986 Wham!: The Edge Of Heaven

With the demise of Wham! now announced and their final concert imminent, 'The Edge of Heaven ' was touted as the last single we'd get from the duo, a state of affairs that caused more sorrow and consternation amongst those of a certain age in 1986 than is normally shown on the news of a Royal death.

But make no mistake, in 1986 Wham! were royalty - pop royalty maybe, but they were as big a phenomenon as pop music had seen to date and the gravity of the occasion is well illustrated by Mr Ridgeley who stares from out of the sleeve with the expression of a doctor about to deliver some Very Bad News Indeed.

It was a golden opportunity to go out with a bang, but far from Wham! at their joyous best, it has as much fizz as a glass of Panda Pop that had been left out in the sun all day and it's telling that Michael on the sleeve looks as if his mind is elsewhere.

From the off, 'The Edge Of Heaven' positively drips with a deja vu ennui and the kind of anti-climactic aura that must have been shared by those who watched Don Bradman being bowled for that final duck. Because we've heard it all before; the finger snapping opening bars may be missing the backing cries of 'Jitterbug', but from the get go it's clear that 'The Edge Of Heaven' is jerry built on the recycled chassis of the demo of 'Wake Me Up Before You Go Go'.

The suggestion is that Michael had already used all the plum pieces from his Meccano kit to build everything he wanted and so when it came to a last hurrah, he didn't want to open the shiny new ones he had in his room. Instead, he had to make do with what was left behind in the old box, and on the evidence of this there wasn't a hell of a lot left in the kitty. And where there weren't enough parts to cover all the gaps then a few lazy 'yeah, yeah, yeah's' and 'la la la la's' would just have to do.

I can't say I've ever been much of a fan of Wham!, but this is one of the few songs of theirs that I actively dislike. It was promoted as a musical event, and in truth their 'final single' would have hit number one had they covered Varèse's 'Ionisation', but 'The Edge Of Heaven' is nothing so interesting. It's cynical and it wears its cynicism on its sleeve, an autopilot exercise in squeezing the last drops from a lucrative cash cow.

Stretching the song to twice the length it needed to be to try and give it an epic feel doesn't wash either, and the 'risqué theme and lyrics fall flat and are even just a little sinister in a context where Michael knew his core audience were still writing his name on the covers of school exercise books:

"I would strap you up, but don't worry baby

You know I wouldn't hurt you 'less you wanted me to"

Whether he had in mind a ready made 'Frankie' type scandal to divert attention from the second hand music, or whether he thought it was further evidence of his growing 'maturity' and move into a more 'adult' market is debateable, but such was the clamour for the product that I don't think anybody paid too much attention in any case:

"I'm like a maniac, at the end of the day

I'm like a doggie barking at your door
So come take me back to the place you stay
And maybe we can do it once more"

Strewth, never mind making the sun shine like Doris Day, as long as they're good in the sack eh George? Which sums up 'The Edge Of Heaven' quite nicely - as effective as a Terminator programmed to kill a small child in doing it's job, but with just as much heart and soul.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

1986 Dr & The Medics: Spirit In The Sky

Originally a 1970 number one hit for Norman Greenbaum, 'Spirit In The Sky' has always, to my mind anyway, walked a perilous tightrope between sincere statement of religious belief and flaky hippie ephemera. I suppose the truth is somewhere in-between, but that needn't concern us here.

In terms of visuals, Dr & The Medics present an interesting proposition. Looking like a gaggle of new age hippies harbouring a Goth identity crisis and with the good Dr himself looking like Catweazle in drag after a heavy night on the sauce, they don't want for colour certainly. But does this eccentricity follow through to the music?

Well from that unmistakable opening guitar riff in it's clear we're in for a carbon copy re-run of the original, albeit one scrubbed up and deloused. Whereas Greenbaum's version creaked and wheezed like an Audiobook of the Old Testament read by God himself, Dr & The Medics are happy to fall to the novelty side of the high wire and emphasise the basic tune with a standard rock beat to play up their pantomime persona and swoon all around it.

So what's the point in all this? None really as far as I can tell. Rather than breathing new life into the track, the song itself is playing the band rather than vice versa (it's not typically representative of their usual business) and no new light is shone into any of its cracks. We've Got A Fuzzbox And We're Gonna Use It did their own cover version of this at almost exactly the same date to the month and it showed what the song could become
with a little bit of imagination, a little bit of true eccentricity and a little less musical talent.

'Spirit In The Sky' by Dr & The Medics sounds like something knocked up in the studio during a jam session which grew legs and ran out the door to the top of the charts without any underlying rhyme or reason. It's a competent cover of a decent song, but any half arsed bar band could have churned it out and I like to think that a number one single needs to be a bit more than that. It's a pity the record buying public don't always share my beliefs. Tant pis.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

1986 Spitting Image: The Chicken Song

Ever since the mid-seventies and the arrival of low cost package deals to the Costa Cheap, holiday makers have sought to extend their two weeks in the sun just that little bit longer by buying up a piece of memory in the form of whatever ghastly Euro hit soundtracked their times in the bars and clubs. Hence, the domestic charts are treated to such treats as 'Y Viva Espana' and 'Barbados' throughout the summer months where they linger like a bad smell until autumn opens a drafty door to let them out. In other words, a genre ripe for parody.

In the right hands, parody can be a devastating tool. There is a fine art to taking a scenario, object or individual and then skewing it to exaggerate the humour yet retain enough of the original so as to not lose sight of it. In the context of eighties music in general, the Not The Nine O'clock News team made great sport of the dreary, synth based, image obsessed groups that were clogging up the charts in 'Nice Video, Shame About The Song'. In terms of cheap holidays in the sun, Blur did a similarly fine job with their 'Boys And Girls', though they used a razor so sharp you didn't feel it cut. As I say, in the right hands.

With 'The Chicken Song', the Spitting Image team obviously have Black Lace's 'Agadoo' in their sights. A horrible, holiday song to be sure, but instead of climbing inside the genre and ripping it apart from the inside out, all they've done is lazily produce a song that is even more irritating than its source material. And it's more irritating because there is literally no reason for its existence.

It is not in the slightest bit funny and it singly fails in what it sets out to do - rather than put Black Lace et al in their place, it merely falls in alongside them in the ranks of the annoying so as to be indistinguishable from the 'genuine' article. Perhaps even more annoying because at least Black Lace never got to number one and never held themselves up as being any arbiter of good taste.

Yes, I know there are those who will argue that I'm missing the point and that it's meant to be annoying. But if that really is the point of 'The Chicken Song' then its about as pointless and humorless as starting a drip in the kitchen cold water tap when you're already being driven up the wall by the drip in the hot. But see, I don't think that's what the people behind this had in mind at all:

"It's the time of year, now that spring is in the air

When those two wet gits, with their girly curly hair
Make another song, for moronic holidays
that nauseate-ate-ates in a million different ways"

Well they can make that a million and one different ways now, and the biggest morons here are the morons behind this who, in trying to hold themselves up as being better than the subject they are parodying, show themselves to be no different and arguably a damn sight worse.

I don't think 'The Chicken Song' is the worst number one of all time, but by god it's top five and it's only saving grace is that it provides a good pub quiz question in 'Apart from 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick', what other UK number one namechecks the Arapaho Indians'? But I'm looking hard now to find any kind of silver lining to this sorry affair.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

1986 Falco: Rock Me Amadeus

European pop was never a stranger to our shores, and after Germany's quadruple barrelled onslaught of the number one slot so far this decade, Falco now became the first Austrian to top the UK charts and with a song about his fellow Austrian Mozart. You could even say he went one better than Nena et al because large sections of 'Rock Me Amadeus' are actually sung in German, no mean feat knowing the UK's generally xenophobic approach to any song not sung in its native tongue.

And he got away with it mainly because the lyrics in the verses don't matter all that much. Ostensibly translating as a boiling down of Milos Forman's film version of 'Amadeus' into a three minute pop song, Falco's droll, heavily accented rap delivery is less concerned about the intricacies of the composer's life (Boswell can rest easy):

"He was Superstar

He was popular

He was so exalted

Because he had flair"

and more with bolting it on to a steamroller neo industrial, Europop rhythm track that transcends language. What didn't hurt either was a sung in English chorus that pulls you in with all the subtlety of a butcher's hook to the throat:

"Come on and rock me Amadeus

Amadeus Amadeus, Amadeus"

And so it goes on, endlessly repeating the mantra until the listener is bludgeoned into a trance like submission and gets swept along by Falco's own arch enthusiasm. High art it is not, memorable and catchy it is; there's a hard, almost gothic edge to 'Rock Me Amadeus' that has weathered the years well, and with such an unlikely subject matter only the most ungracious would begrudge Falco a pat on the back and a 'Well done my son' for going easy on the cheese and actually pulling it off.

1986 George Michael: A Different Corner

Although Wham! were still a going concern at this point in time, George Michael had announced their imminent spilt and was now marking time until his solo career proper could kick off. Perhaps to give advance warning of the path he intended to be following, 'A Different Corner' was the second single he issued under his own name whilst still in partnership with Andrew Ridgeley.

'A Different Corner' is a beast unlike anything Michael had put his name to to date. Sure,'Careless Whisper' had marked a change of pace from the feelgood Wham! stuff, but 'A Different Corner' takes a sharper turn again into territory not previously charted by the duo. Gone are the upbeat melodies and 'everything's ok' lyrics to be replaced by a gentle palette of almost ambient electronics that seem bereft of any human hand in their creation and with Michael's unmistakable voice being the only tangible link to the past.

To Michael's past anyway - 'A Different Corner' leans heavily on the arrangement of 'Can't Get Used To Losing You' that Robert Mersey provided for Andy Williams, but here the plucked staccato strings are replaced by slowed down electronic pulses sounding like individual full stops that mark the end of something winding down to a standstill. Soft and woozy, yet never boring or ponderous, the backing has just enough structure in its dreamlike atmosphere for Michael to hang his words of uncertainty and despair in love:
"Take me back in time maybe I can forget. Turn a different corner and we never would have met. Would you care? I don't understand it, for you it's a breeze, little by little you've brought me to my knees. Don't you care?"

Yet for all that, 'A Different Corner' doesn't really move, and it doesn't really move because it doesn't really convince. Michael wrote, sang, performed the music and produced this single as a genuine auteur, yet the end product plays as if he were studiously undertaking an exercise in how to write a song that was the antithesis of anything he'd done before. Slightly cynical, the whole package from the sparse and wintry scene on the sleeve, the elegiac video of George looking moody in a white room to the overly self conscious vocals and fusspot production suggests that this is all coming from the head rather than the heart. And it's a head where there is no place for oversized 'Choose Life' T shirts. On that level at least, 'A Different Corner' has a slightly hollow centre where its soul should be.

It's easier to be confident about a change of direction when you're confident of your audience, and it's interesting that whereas Wham! tended to be all about the optimism of youth where love was always joyous, both Michael's solo singles on the trot detail what happens when it all goes wrong. A sure sign that he was maturing as a songwriter and that perhaps he wasn't all that concerned if his previous audience didn't come along for the ride.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

1986 Cliff Richard & The Young Ones: Living Doll

Charity again. This time Comic Relief. And being Comic Relief, any associated single has to avoid the brow furrowing, hand wringing, serious tone of other disaster based appeals and be....well, funny.

In 1986, The Young Ones were funny. Very funny indeed. They were the Monty Python of my generation and their antics were endlessly replayed in school the way the previous generation used to recite 'The Parrot Sketch'. So whither 'Living Doll'? Does it meet the appropriate criteria here (i.e. is it funny)? Ah, no. Not at all.

A strange pairing on the face of it, you had to be a fan of the series to understand the linking device of Rick Mayall's character being a huge fan of Cliff in a non ironic way (with the lack of irony being the source of the humour). Whether Cliff knew this, or knew that he was essentially there to be taken the piss out of is by no means apparent from this version of his 1959 number one. He delivers the song as straight as you like, almost as if he believes re-recording it for charity with old Shadow Hank Marvin on guitar is la raison d'entre for the whole project and it's a bit disconcerting to hear him sing the tune in almost exactly the same way as he did some twenty six years previously.

And do the Young Ones use this innocent ignorance and go to town on him and the song in a spectacular stitch up? Sadly not. Perhaps realising that Cliff was doing them a favour by agreeing to this in the first place, and not wanting to harm the sales figures by courting controversy (it's for charidee, remember?), they dutifully play the game and merely take turns to make 'humorous' character interjections in the background while Cliff does his thing.

The problem is, The Young Ones always relied on anarchic and violent visual humour for much of their yuks and so just having their voices on record loses something. Actually, it loses quite a lot. Enough anyway to make 'Living Doll' as unfunnily irritating as anal itch and to wipe out their anti establishment credentials and tarnish their credibility and legacy in one fell swoop. As The Clash once sang:

"But I believe in this-and its been tested by research

That he who fucks nuns will later join the church"

What a shame they had to join up so quickly.

1986 Diana Ross: Chain Reaction

After her early eighties rebirth as a disco diva courtesy of the Chic boys, if the good ship Ross wasn't washed up in 1986, then it was certainly taking in water after a series of ho hum singles suggested her star was on the wane. Step forward the cavalry in the form of the Brothers Gibb and 'Chain Reaction', a song that could have rolled off the production lines of the Motor City Hit Factory in its heyday.

'Chain Reaction' sounds like the offspring of 'Baby Love' and 'Jimmy Mack' but with the brakes removed. The standard verse/chorus/verse structure flow into each other in a continuously building loop of sound that sparks off itself, shifting up a key with every bar before spiralling off the rails at about the halfway point and once again beginning it's climb of joyful exhilaration to a peak where only the blackest of hearts aren't caught up in it all and singing along. I have no idea if Ross was jumping around and grinning like a fool in the studio when she recorded this, but it sounds like she was.

And why shouldn't she? For the first time in decades she finally had a song worthy of the ones that Holland, Dozier and Holland used to write for her, albeit one with a thumping dance beat welded on to bring it up to date and to make it plain that Ross was not parodying herself. Homage maybe, and it may seem strange for a singer to be paying homage to herself (especially with her vocal styling here deliberately revisiting the muted and slightly lispy way she sang with The Supremes), but the video's shifts from 1960's to 1980's environments were enough to show that everything here was good natured.

'Chain Reaction' is not some cheap and cynical cash in, the Gibbs know their trade too well to stoop to that level and it's genuine enough to not sound like it was created to order in a test tube. Admittedly, the combination of the old with the new doesn't give birth to a hybrid that tears up any new ground, but as a bookending career resume of where she came from and where she was now, 'Chain Reaction' hits the target with a clear bullseye. Good stuff.

Monday, 6 July 2009

1986 Billy Ocean: When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going

I was a young lad when Billy Ocean was enjoying his first crack of chart success back in the mid seventies. One of my mates at the time had a very annoying habit whereby, if you told him a phrase or a group of words, he'd immediately form them into a rough melody and start 'singing' them at the top of his voice. It used to irritate the life out of me (I didn't suffer fools wisely even when I was seven) and I can remember him having a particularly good squawk when his older sister told us she'd bought Ocean's 'Love Really Hurts Without You' single in 1976. His 'version' sounded nothing like what Ocean was singing, but he was happy enough. Kids eh?

Anyway, I mention this because I'm sure if I'd given him the phrase 'When The Going Gets Tough The Tough Get Going' then he'd have improvised the chorus to this ten years early. Maybe he'd have come up with something better. Whatever, I doubt he'd have come up with anything more uncomfortably clumsy.
After opening with a thunderous burst of Frankie Goes To Hollywood style programmed drum patterns and 'huh huh' chants, 'When The Going Gets Tough' sounds like it means business. Getting tough even. Unfortunately, it soon stops spoiling for a fight and settles down with pipe and slippers into a predictable holding pattern of a synthesiser led plod of funk lite guitar lines and a harsh, brassy backing that's held together by a spongy bassline.

And we've heard it all before. It's the standard eighties template that Phil Collins would have patented and charged rent for if he'd been able and it's only broken up by that awkward chorus which itself only serves to derail momentum every time the song threatens to get going; I kinda get the impression the writers were contractually obliged to use that title and were forced to crowbar a song around it anyway they could.
Ocean gives it his best shot and tries to make it sound like he means every word, but he never had the quality of voice to spin straw into gold in the first place and he never once manages to break free of the plastic soul backing that smothers his every word. In that sense at least it's quite fitting that a poor man's version of 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough' should be soundtracking a poor man's Indiana Jones movie.

Ok, there was a certain contemporary glamour and humour value in watching Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas mugging along to this in the video that helped it sell it back in 1986, but in truth, 'When The Going Gets Tough The Tough' has aged terribly. It's still listenable, but with all context now lost in the mists of time it's just plain Blandsville USA and there's not much fun to be had anymore with what's left behind.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

1986 A-ha: The Sun Always Shines On TV

In many ways, although A-ha's debut single 'Take On Me' brought them overnight fame to a UK audience, the wings it grew for the band expanded to become an albatross around their collective necks.

Yes, the image of a rotoscope Morton Harket playing peek a boo behind a mirror with Bunty Bailey is an iconic eighties image to be eternally dragged out whenever nostalgia for the decade calls, but this video and the song it accompanied seemed to cement A-ha's status as just another pretty boy band to be forever more screamed at than listened to.

And this branding is unfair and misleading - there was always more to A-ha than good looks and cheekbones. From that day to this their music remains forever shot through with a chill of Scandinavian permafrost that marked them out from their contemporaries. 'The Sun Always Shines On TV' is a case in point; the chorus refrain may be eminently hummable and chime like sunlight flashing off glaciers, but there's a shadow of darkness at the heart of the song:

"I reached inside myself and found

Nothing there to ease the
Pressure of my ever worrying mind.
All my powers waste away
I fear the crazed and lonely
Looks the mirror's sending me these days."

You didn't get lyrics like that from Spandau Ballet. You didn't get music like it either.

Building from a simple piano motif that suggests we're in for a low key ballad, 'The Sun Always Shines On TV' piles on the tension before exploding into a sonic wall of metallic guitar, descending gothic keyboard fills and a constant glistening hiss of percussion that conveys the impression of great speed, a sensation at odds with the wits end desperation of the lyric.

It's every bit 'pop as opera' as 'Bohemian Rhapsody' or Jim Steinman's more outre output, yet producer Alan Tarney served a pop apprenticeship through his previous work with Leo Sayer (!) and Cliff Richard (!!), and he ensures that a tight rein is kept on the bombast so that the melody is kept to the fore and accentuated rather than swamped in the maelstrom.

'The Sun Always Shines On TV' is about as grand a gesture as pop can make without heading down to the path of prog and up to its own arse. It's the song that Genesis have been trying to write since 1978 without coming close. They were always trying too hard. 'The Sun Always Shines On TV' is accomplished, polished, memorable and effortless. Totally, totally effortless.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

1986 Pet Shop Boys: West End Girls

As Assistant Editor of 'Smash Hits', Neil Tennant must have despaired at the pop landscape of the early eighties that his publication wrote about and the kids screamed over. Yes there were good pop groups producing good pop music, but after Adam stopped playing with the Ants and took his ball home with him, where was the substance and relevance in the overproduced candy floss of the Duran's and the Wham's of the world? And so he decided to step through the mirror to the other side and do something about it.

'West End Girls' opens with a hypnotic wash of electronics sounding like passing traffic flowing like sleeping gas before settling into a neo rap beat that's only broken by a squealing brass interlude straight out of a spaghetti western set in hell. Neil Tennant raps the lyrics in the manner of a Geordie with no singing voice (which is exactly what he is) but with a delivery of self confident swagger and shine that brooks no hint of irony or parody and has his tongue nowhere near his cheek.

And how likely does all this sound as the basis of a number one song or a career in music? After all, what future could there be for a dreary Al Stewart soundalike who sang/spoke/rapped over a muted electronic backing like a Soft Cell B side played at half speed? None surely? Yet as unlikely as all this sounds, it works.

And it works largely because his dour delivery isn't regaling stories of the bright lights and beautiful people that your average listener imagines must live 'up West' (as opposed to the miserable and downtrodden screened twice weekly on 'EastEnders'). The 'west end town' of this world is twinned with the 'Ghost Town' of The Specials, a place of casual violence:

"Sometimes you're better off dead

There's gun in your hand and its pointing at your head
You think you're mad, too unstable

Kicking in chairs and knocking down tables"

and angst fuelled paranoia:

"Too many shadows, whispering voices

Faces on posters, too many choices"

It's a lyric of casual observation rather than Ray Davies type storytelling and it roots the almost ambient, other world music firmly in this one. As English as the song is (and it's very English - not British. English), this isn't London W2 (though there are London references like The Dive Bar on Gerrard Street), it's any city in the UK of 1986 that the Conservative Party's harmony, truth, faith and hope hadn't shown their faces.

The girls of this West weren't any better than the boys of the East - how could they be when the town only had one side of the tracks, the bad one? Yet there is a sense of unity in adversity and glamour in a gutter where everybody is staring at the stars, a seam that Pulp would later mine to tremendous effect in 'Common People'.

'West End Girls' has always reminded me of Marshall Hain's 1978 hit 'Dancing In The City' - that is, a low key, almost subliminal tale of urban living with an ever present hint of menace and violence that keeps the edges sharp; there was something serious going on here beneath the surface, like the razor blade hidden in the Halloween apple, and it forced you to listen rather than dance around like a fool. A rare commodity in hits of this decade.

Like 'Dancing In The City' too, I assumed (at the time) that the Pet Shop Boys would be, if not a one hit wonder, certainly a one trick pony that would be off to the knacker's yard come November. The whole set up screamed out 'novelty act' and I had my doubts whether the whole thing wasn't a publicity stunt dreamed up by the BBC to promote their new soap 'Eastenders'. I'm happy to admit my judgement was off by a mile. The Pet Shop Boys would go on to release better singles than 'West End Girls', but not many, and at one stroke this single raised the bar roof top high as to what an eighties pop song should sound like.