Saturday, 22 August 2009

1987 Pet Shop Boys: Always On My Mind

Ah, now then, I well remember reading a news article back in 1987 stating that the Pet Shop Boys were going to be releasing a version of 'Always On My Mind' as a single and thinking 'Oh, I bet I know what that's going to sound like'. And do you know what? I was right. Nothing mystical; as long as you know the song and are familiar with the Pet Shop Boys output then anybody would be able to say the same. It would be the same if an announcement came that a hitherto uncatalogued cache of Van Gogh paintings had been discovered down the side of the bed at his old house; as long as you knew Van Gogh's palette and brushstroke then you'd have a fair idea what they'd look like before you even saw them.

That's not to dismiss this out of hand, I'm just stating a fact. The Pet Shop Boys could tackle just about any song from 'Like A Rolling Stone' to 'Baby One More Time' and I'd have a fair idea as to how it would sound. It's the voice - Neil Tennant's vocals always run the whole gamut of emotions from ironic to detached, and on this he sounds less like the anguished lover who never took the time and more like someone blithely noting that their partner was heading out the door with one eye whilst keeping the other trained on the distraction that caused them to leave in the first place. Almost 'Always On My Mind' in effect.

An original take on a heartbroken ballad of regret to be sure, but it's exactly the take you'd expect from them and it's all too easy to twist this re-interpretation as being some kind of ironic, post modern statement whereas in fact it's just Tennant being Tennant. He could not do otherwise if he tried and so any commentary that imbues this with an elevated intellectualism, however cold, should be taken with a large pinch of salt, especially when the accompanying music is straight up, no surprises Pet Shop Boys.

The electronics blare over a galloping high energy beat of campy Gothic whoops and whirls that threaten to topple the song with the sheer exhilaration of it all, yet it remains anchored to terra firma through Tennant's maudlin vocal. Maudlin can work well at Christmas and 'Always On My Mind' would have appealed to those raw nerves in their heart and an empty party diary over the festive season.

And while it does work well as a reminder that not everybody is out on the lash, it also provides a thumping soundtrack for those who are, and this duality holds good at any time of the year, going some way to explaining the version's enduring appeal. The Pet Shop Boys' version of 'Always On My Mind' is a good and memorable one, but please - take it at face value eh?

Thursday, 20 August 2009

1987 T'Pau: China In Your Hand

I confess to having quite a passionate dislike for this song back in 1987. Or rather, not so much for the song itself but by the way lead singer, Carol Decker, carried on every time the band promoted it on some pop show or other. Memorably dubbed 'the singing barmaid' by Q Magazine, Carol would screw up her eyes, curl up her lip and claw up her hands like the finest Victorian stage barnstormer with the sheer bloody passion of it all until her hair seemed to throb a fiercer shade of red everytime she gurned a high note. Which she does a lot on 'China In Your Hand'. An awful lot in fact. And what was the tale that warranted this performance? Well I could tell you, but I'll let the 'official website' do the talking:

"It may not be easy to tell, but the inspiration behind this song was actually Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Once again, the combination of Carol and TV proved significant in the history of the band. There happened to be a documentary about Shelley on TV that Carol was watching, and somehow she got the idea to write a cracking song about her. Thank goodness Carol wasn't watching what was on the other channels or we probably would have ended up with a song about gardening!"

So there we have it, it's about Frankenstein.

In truth, 'China In Your Hand' is a clunky metaphor to describe fragility - after all, I've seen stocky china milk jugs that would survive Godzilla's foot stomp Yes I know I'm probably being pedantic, and yes I know what they're getting at........or do I? While the 'Frankenstein' imagery pervades the verses in a remarkably direct narrative, the arms aloft chorus is aimed at everyman, not just the good doctor and it's here that things fall apart:
"Don't push too far your dreams are china in your hand. Don't wish too hard because they may come true and you can't help them.You don't know what you might have set upon yourself"

It's common knowledge that Dr Frankenstein came a cropper with his monster, but if your dreams come true then surely that's not the same as them breaking, no matter how badly they go awry? 'China In Your
Hand'has a very FM American sheen with a Bob Clearmountain-alike production, but what American artist recording in this genre would ever tell you to not push too far or live for your dreams? It would be like John Wayne advising we all vote Communist.

On one hand, 'China In Your
Hand' is ambiguous and unsatisfying, but in truth it matters not what Carol's on about; it's such an over the top power ballad (with the checklist low key opening of plucked violins giving way to crashing power chords and a squawking saxophone solo) that the verses are just so much baggage in between the appearances of that chorus. And it's a chorus that Carol shouts in your face with the conviction of one reading from tablets of stone until you can't help but believe every word to be the gospel truth. There's no small element of campness about the whole thing that has kept the song remarkable well preserved in comparison with other horrors from the decade. It may not be quite the 'cracking' song the website promises, but it has a 'guilty pleasure', karaoke pleasing status all of it's own. Just don't listen to it with any accompanying visuals.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

1987 Bee Gees: You Win Again

Right, well the first reaction when this starts up is 'Blimey, doesn't sound much like the Bee Gees does it'? And sure enough, on blind test you'd probably peg the psuedo industrial electronic metal on metal clang as something by Depeche Mode or OMD. But the cat's soon free of the bag when the vocals chime in; there's no mistaking those harmonies, even if they are in fighting talk mode:

"I'm gonna hit you from all sides

Lay your fortress open wide
Nobody stops this body from taking you"

Blimey again, and for a time the sheer novelty of the Gibb boys getting all Nine Inch Nails on us is enough to maintain interest and carry the song. But not for long - the repetition soon wears with the realisation that, having set their machines running, they have no discernable place to run them to so they end up running themselves into the ground through producing the same metallic thump from beginning to end, like an unmanned static industrial press going about its business. No matter that the underlying song is an ABBA-esque pop tune with anthemic aspirations, they are never given room to grow due to the pummelling overriding beat battering them into silence

'You Win Again' is something different and unexpected from the band, so kudos for that. But the unexpected soon becomes the familiar, a one trick pony that, like Aesop's fable of the sun and the wind, tries to ingriate itself by force when a little sunlight and warmth would have done wonders to break up the chill.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

1987 M|A|R|R|S: Pump Up The Volume

From Chicago to London - there was a certain inevitability that House music would make the Atlantic crossing, but unlike that other very American musical innovation rap, it tended to travel a lot better, albeit in smaller quantities. M|A|R|R|S was a one off collaboration between indie acts Colourbox and AR Kane, and 'Pump Up The Volume' was a single that caused me all manner of problems back in 1987.

Firstly, it's House music, and not being a fan of the genre, that was enough
in itself to wind me up to fever pitch before the needle even hit the record. But more than that, it was House music on the 4AD label, a label that boasted Cocteau Twins, X Mal Deutschland, Dead Can Dance etc, bands all dear to my indie,'sonic cathedrals of sound' (© every NME hack of the the late eighties) loving heart and after my dismissal of 'Jack Your Body' as 'not proper music, dammit' earlier that year, seeing something like 'Pump Up The Volume' on 'my' lable was as confusing and as just plain 'wrong' as dressing in the dark and putting your trousers on back to front. It was if the world had turned upside down. Dear me yes.

To ice a cake that needed no icing, 'Pump Up The Volume' also sat at the top
of both the national and indie charts at a time when the two were almost mutually exclusive with no crossover sought or welcomed, meaning there was a definite feeling that 'my' world had been invaded by an unwelcome squatter. Troubling days indeed for a lad all dressed in black. But enough of Memory Lane.

Created almost entirely from samples, 'Pump Up The Volume' is the first home
grown House hit that brought the underground overground (though the flurry of legal actions over the illegal use of samples anchored it well left of the mainstream) and paved the way for the imminent 'Second Summer Of Love'. Unlike the intricate syncopation and almost pure rhythm of it's American cousins, 'Pump Up The Volume' fairly throbs along on a sensual groin level pulse with acres of space to spare between the beats; no co-incidence then that the video heavily featured space rocket and astronaut imagery.

British born it may be, from it's title (courtesy of Eric B. & Rakim) in,
'Pump Up The Volume' relies heavily on America for it's samples and hooks. The prominent 'You're Gonna Get Yours' and 'Put The Needle To The Record' refrains are lifted from Public Enemy and Arthur Baker respectively, but rather than taking the form of (for example) the earlier 'Jack Your Body', 'Pump Up The Volume' doesn't lock into an airtight groove that repeats to close.

True, there's a constant underlying heartbeat that strings it all together,
but in and around this are mixed other bits of unpredictable business where Ofra Haza, The Bar Kays or The Last Poets et al appear and disappear at random, keeping the track ever interesting by keeping the listener on their toes as to what's coming next. It might sound a tad clichéd to modern ears, but it's easy to forget how original and downright fresh all this sounded in '87. Sigue Sigue Sputnik may have heavily punctuated their music with samples just the previous year, but they were shoehorned in to emphasises the comedy violence the band was peddling whereas 'Pump Up The Volume' represented one of the earliest examples of samples being arranged to form the song itself.

And clichés be damned, 'Pump Up The Volume' still carries the sensual groove
that set it apart from other more mathematically cold examples of the genre, and it's one you didn't need to be loved up and blissed out on ecstasy to appreciate. And your appreciation of 'Pump Up The Volume' will always hinge on your affinity to House (or dance) music in general - believers will love it, others won't be converted.

And that's
fine. But with a chart ever stuffed with predictability, it was a refreshing change to once again have a number one that polarised opinion on roughly generational grounds. Like a Pollock's splatter art or a William Burroughs 'cut up' novel it's not going to be everybody's taste. But it's there, it has its place and its influence is undeniable.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

1987 Rick Astley: Never Gonna Give You Up

After a promising start with Dead Or Alive and their work with Mel & Kim, 'Never Gonna Give You Up' for me marks the exact zero day that Messer's Stock, Aitken and Waterman abandoned any attempt at innovation or boat rocking experimentation and hitched their wagon to the hit making formula they'd go on to use time and time and time and time again. To whit - a rolling electronic percussion based backing rhythm that varies only in terms of subtle key shifts whilst all melody is carried by a lead vocal that builds to a hummable chorus designed to stick in the mind. A production line product in fact.

Not that there's anything wrong with production lines per se; Ferraris are built on production lines, as was the majority of the musical output of Motown, Brill Building etc. The difference, of course, lies in the attention to detail; 'Never Gonna Give You Up' is based around the Philly soul model, but after inevitably filtering itself through the very British 'three middle aged white blokes with a sequencer' processing, the resulting sound is more stodge than sweet, a cheap and lumpen copy that's to it's source material what a Ford Capri is to a Lamborghini.

Astley has a decent enough voice to be sure, but it's a voice more akin to a top class impressionist 'doing' a soul singer than the real deal, and in any case it falls far short of being worthy of the amazed 'Oh my god I can't believe he's not black!!!' cries that were prevalent in 1987. You can't pin too much fault on the lad though; the song moves along a tad too hurriedly to provide room for a good soulful blast out and even Al Green would struggle to do anything more with it than Astley manages.

'Never Gonna Give You Up' makes all the right moves for a catchy pop song, but it hangs together like a cheap suit from Primark. Each 'section' of it is stitched to the next in such a style neglecting and predictable fashion that, even on first listen, you can tell exactly when Rick is going to start singing, exactly where the backing singers will chip in, exactly where the chorus is going to arrive and even what the lyric rhymes are going to be etc. It's a song bereft of ideas, feeling, colour, individuality, soul and fun.

Nope, there's no fun to be had here, and if the '80's' of popular nostalgia only really began when The Jam split, I don't think it would be too harsh to say that they effectively ended with this. Because even at the decade's worst and most ludicrously pretentious, there was always a face saving/smile cracking element of bravado or piss taking humour that was rarely present in anything the strait laced and very, very earthbound SAW 'hit factory' did. Rather than aiming high for the stars, 'Never Gonna Give You Up' chugs along a coastal road to the sea where it sits and watches the waves with a tartan blanket over its knees.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

1987 Michael Jackson & Siedah Garrett: I Just Can't Stop Loving You

With 'Thriller' milked until the dry teats cracked, both fans and Epic Records were waiting for new Jackson product as eagerly as the Allies were awaiting the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945. With expectation so heavy, it's somewhat surprising that instead of coming out with all dance guns blazing, the lead off single from the forthcoming 'Bad' should be a low key ballad duet with a virtually unknown (in the UK at least) Siedah Garrett.

I've written before that it's easy to take risks when you're sure of your audience, but the risk here was perhaps all the greater in that whilst Jackson's voice does excitement and exhilaration very well, he has never managed to convince as a ballad singer. And sure enough, on the 'no place to hide' openness of 'I Just Can't Stop Loving You', he fails to convince.

For all the starry eyed emoting of the one true love message, Jackson simply can't let the song do the talking and sings throughout with barely subdued breathless intent, as if he's dying to let rip with a trademark yelp but is struggling to keep himself in check with his overused vibrato signposting the after effects of an inner controlled explosion where 'Michael Jackson: Entertainer' is struggling to break free. It adds a tension to the mix that doesn't sit well against the liquid smooth production that suggests quiet nights in, or compliment Garrett's rather more laid back R&B stylings.

The track itself is a simple enough tune with a heartfelt lyric, but instead of tapping further into his own Motown/R&B heritage, Jackson has written a song that is more akin to the whitebread AOR outpourings of a Foreigner or Chicago, either of who could have come up with this at any point in their careers. True, much of 'Thriller' was deemed 'rock' enough to go into heavy rotation on MTV, but pandering to a white audience was a criticism aimed at much of his post 'Off The Wall' output, and on tracks like 'I Just Can't Stop Loving You', you can see the critics' point; this is meant to be Michael Jackson single after all, not #&@£ing Peter Cetera.

Designed to appeal to all demographs, 'I Just Can't Stop Loving You' is very much a conservative step backwards from mutant dance/rock hybrid of, say, 'Billie Jean', with the end result being a song that's easy to listen to in the short term, but rather harder to really enjoy in the long run.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

1987 Los Lobos: La Bamba

Although a traditional Latin folk song 'La Bamba' in this form, of course, was originally recorded by a seventeen year old Ritchie Valens in 1958. Though it only charted in the UK by virtue of its being the B side to his 'Donna', it's fusion of traditional Mexican rhythms and American rock & roll remains a cornerstone of modern popular music.

Los Lobos's version doesn't mine the tune's heritage for further inspiration but instead sticks faithfully to the Valens arrangement, almost to a fault. I normally frown on such blatantly unimaginative covers, but this one has a note for teacher in that it was recorded for the soundtrack to Luis Valdez's biographical film of Valens' short life and is meant to be a version of Ritchie Valen's version for Lou Diamond Phillips to mime to, albeit a chunkier one in terms of the production and David Hidalgo's vocal. It's also a rockier version, one that eschews Valen's dense Mexican motifs and backing calls for a solid backbeat.

It's all good fun and it's hard to begrudge Los Lobos a little success, especially with a song they were born to play, and their own Latin gene pool ensures that the essential danceability of the tune is undiminished and shoved to the fore. Note to Madonna: this is how it's done my dear.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

1987 Madonna: Who's That Girl

By mid 1987, Madonna was putting herself about a bit; albums, films, film soundtracks - she was certainly spreading herself very thinly. Fine when there's plenty to go round, but there wasn't. At least not on this single.

Taken from the eponymous movie, 'Who's That Girl' basically presents a re-run of the Latin tinged pop of 'La Isla Bonita' but with all the Spanish musical bells and whistles taken out. Shorn of this baggage, the tune is lighter and given more room to breathe, but there's very little in the way of song wrapped around it and there's only a much repeated chorus refrain of 'Who's That Girl' to put any semblance of meat on the bare bones,

Madonna chooses to sing this in a high and ghostly higher key while the verses themselves are delivered in a sultry low key, both of which are outside of her vocal comfort zone. The effect is to give the track an unfinished feel, as if it's a final demo waiting for the vocalist proper to add her parts. Adding the Spanish phrases 'Quien es esa niña, Señorita mas fina' into the chorus smacks of desperation, an attempt to win over the audience that bought into 'La Isla Bonita' and also to inject a little highbrow sticking plaster onto a lowbrow sucking chest wound, but it's effective as wrapping greasy chips in a copy of The Times and trying to pass them off as caviar.

'Who's That Girl' is presented without a question mark, maybe because the question here isn't so much 'Who's That Girl?' but 'Where's The Song?' We all know who the girl is, it's Madonna, and had it been anyone else at the helm then this thinly sliced piece of inconsequential confection would have struggled to make the top fifty, let alone number one.

Monday, 10 August 2009

1987 Pet Shop Boys: It's A Sin

There has always been an element of the theatrical about the Pet Shop Boys, a larger than life approach that embraces performance art in a way that sometimes makes the whole spectacle of faux opera and big pointy hats more important than the actual song. Opening with a sampled NASA countdown and building from that blast off, 'It's A Sin' is theatre personified and makes 'Bohemian Rhapsody' sound like a one track field recording. A veritable Wailing Wall of sound, 'It's A Sin' takes in samples from a Latin mass, a backing choir recorded at Westminster Cathedral and various sturm und drang orchestral stabs moulded to a tune that loosely shadows Cat Stevens' 'Wild World' (come on Neil, don't deny it) before spiralling out into a super nova explosion of Neil Tennant reciting a straight faced confession to God himself. In Latin.

This is DRAMA with the caps lock on rather than the campy disco excesses of their usual output and it muscles along like a boxer working a heavybag, pummelling it into submission safe in the knowledge that it's not going to hit back - 'It's A Sin' is not background music. A song so in your face demands your full attention, though it's the attention reserved for a hated and feared schoolteacher rather than one based on genuine respect or interest.
It's loud and it's brash, but it's also dense and impenetrable, a thick overblown chunk of solemnity that barely lets in any light, let alone room for any excitement to breathe.

And the DRAMA is carried over into a set of lyrics that don't so much play dead as lumber around with the awkwardness of a George Romero zombie looking for fresh brains. Apparently a reminiscence of Tennant's unhappy Catholic school upbringing in Newcastle, he claims to have written the lyrics in one fifteen minute burst. Frankly, it shows:

"At school they taught me how to be

So pure in thought and word and deed
They didn't quite succeed"

Whilst the Pet Shop Boys normally attack whatever's on their radar with a raised eyebrow of irony or knowing, self mocking flights of self deprecation, 'It's A Sin' is played with a completely straight bat - they mean it man. Unfortunately, this attempt at a synthpop 'À la recherche du temps perdu' serves only to emphasise the fact that Tennant is no Proust, and what's meant to be taken as a purging of the soul is rendered as the overly earnest scribblings of the lamest sixth form poet having a bad day after Sarah from 6B knocked him back in the common room:

"For everything I long to do

No matter when or where or who
Has one thing in common, too
It's a sin

Everything I've ever done
Everything I ever do
Every place I've ever been
Everywhere I'm going to
It's a sin"

It's begging an adolescent howl of '
It's not fair!!!' and the full stop slam of a bedroom door. More tantrum than DRAMA, the natural reaction is to give him a shake and tell him to pull himself together, and that been/sin rhyme is about as comfortable as kneeling on a marble, especially when sung in Tennant's trademark nasally whine.

'It's A Sin' comes ready loaded with expectation, an aura of musical 'event' sincerity that almost dares anyone not to like it. But I don't. I know it was a huge worldwide success and remains one of Pet Shop Boys' best loved songs so I may be in the minority on this one, but tough. I don't like it. Had the Boys kept their tongue in their cheek or injected an element of playfulness into this then it would have sat far better with me. But they didn't, and the overbearing seriousness of it all that proves its undoing. 'It's A Sin' is pretentious as hell, but it's pretentious in an annoying, self pitying way that tries to turn an unhappy childhood into a Wagnerian opera cycle but ends up as so much ado about nothing and as enjoyable as any of Eddie Izzard's film roles where he plays it straight.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

1987 The Firm: Star Trekkin'

Comedy records are by and large a curious breed. Whereas a comedy film or a funny book can make you laugh over and over again, how many comedy singles can that be said about? With only around four minutes to play with, too often they home in on a specific target that you need to be familiar with to 'get' the humour, and the humour itself usually comes with a sell by date.

Billy Howard's 'King Of The Cops' still manages to make me laugh, but who under thirty will even recognise half the cop shows it references? Generally, it's the songs that are time and place neutral that endure, which is why Alan Sherman's 'Hello Muddah Hello Faddah' still cracks a smile after forty five years.

Which brings us to 'Star Trekkin'. The clue is in the title - it's a send up of Star Trek, and in sending it up it manages to tick both of the above boxes. Specific it may be, but the pop culture references are so deeply ingrained in modern life that anyone can pick up on them (who hasn't heard of Captain Kirk and the Klingons?) whilst the catchphrases of 1970's American detectives have faded into obscurity. At the same time there are subtle parodies in there ('It's worse than that, he's dead Jim') that the more seasoned fan will appreciate and they help give the song a longer half life than most of its ilk.

So can't lose then? Well, it's certainly a more interesting and lasting proposition than something like 'The Chicken Song', and it's a swift custard pie in the po faces of the four number ones that preceded it. Ultimately, how much you like 'Star Trekkin' will depend on how willing you are to get carried along by the rollicking 'I Am The Music Man' tune, and how often you listen to it will largely depend on your views of Star Trek; if you loathe the show, then chances are you'll take a rain check on this too. But whatever, I listened to it again today for the first time in over ten years and it still managed to make me laugh so that's good enough for me.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

1987 Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)

Despite a voluminous back catalogue, Whitney Houston only really has two songs; the emotive boo hoo power ballad and the more upbeat number designed for cutting a rug to. Unfortunately, she only has one pre-set mode to sing either, and that's to trowel herself all over with gutbusting abandon and smother what's left with schmaltz.

'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' is a case in point. It's a dance number, but whether by accident or design the backing music is an anaemically thin splash of rootless, squelchy electronica that's mixed low and at all times plays second fiddle to Houston's vocal. With three strikes against it, it sounds tired and bored with itself before it even gets going and the hissily tinny stop start structure can barely keep up with the vocal, always lagging one Corporal Jones step behind Houston's lead.

Luckily, Whitney is at hand to chivvy it along with some opening whoops and yelps that sound like the warm up act to a quiz show trying to convince the audience that they are going to be in for a great time. But unfortunately, they are not. Because as generic as the music may be (and it is, very), Houston's vocal rides a rail with a metronomic predictability that does nothing to rock the boat.

To give an example, every time she breaks into the chorus (which is an awful lot of times over the course of nearly five minutes), her strung out 'Oh!'s and her rising pronunciation of 'heat' on the second line are delivered in the same overblown, identikit style every single time. It sounds like a one shot take being endlessly recycled or resampled rather than a developing interpretation and empathy with the lyrics.

Just as the delivery never varies, neither does it ever convince and it adds a further layer of predictability into a song that was already a textbook definition of predictability; Houston is just there to sing the words as loudly and flashily as she can. Interpretation is beyond her remit and the robotic, one dimensional approach renders the song wallpaper flat.

'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' has substance, but it's a cold, mortuary slab of a song, an emotional vacuum with everything that makes up a human sucked out until all that's left is a voice. A voice that, despite the lyrics, is really only singing 'listen to me, listen to me' like an attention seeking child. And with such a wanton display of egocentricity, she only has herself to blame that nobody wants to dance with her.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

1987 Starship: Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now

There's pedigree here. Starship evolved out of seventies pomp rockers Jefferson Starship, who in turn evolved from the ashes of Jefferson Airplane, doyens of sixties acid rock psychedelia and led for the most part by Grace Slick (who also sings on this), the High Priestess of West Coast counterculture who wrote their anthem/funeral march 'White Rabbit' (but more of her later). 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now' was written by Albert ('The Air That I Breathe', 'It Never Rains in Southern California') Hammond and the queen of eighties power balladry and patron saint of dry ice manufacturers, Diane Warren.

How much Hammond actually contributed to this is moot; 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now' is four and a half minutes of eighties soft rock par excellence, the sort of stuff that Warren could churn out by the yard and which force feeds a 'building dreams together', 'never letting go' inspirational Reaganomics message, so beloved of the decade, down the throats of it's audience with the subtlety of a mallet pummelling food down a funnel.

It's a typically American world of never losing sight of your goals and whatever it takes dude yadda yadda that would have occasioned more than one teary group hug at Senior Prom, while the music grinds about its workmanlike business in the background with the efficiency of a bulldozer shifting sand and with just as much excitement or interest.

It's the sort of low gear drive that's built to illustrate and emphasise a succession of images (I don't think it's any co-incidence that 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now' is taken from a film soundtrack) - a drum crack underscores a sudden look, a power chord details a car smashing through a window; fleeting images that hang together well in aesthetic yet meaningless two second bursts of sharp cutting but which fall away into the ether when any closer examination or contextualisation is attempted. Which is a bit like this song when taken in isolation, reverting it to a one key bore that mistakes shouting loudly with actually having something to say.

This isn't to particularly single out Starship as some kind of whipping boy(s). All this was a blight that affected an entire crop of eighties AOR designed with one eye on an MTV playlist and had this been recorded by Belinda Carlisle or Heart* etc, then it would have merely afforded the same eye rolling yawn of predictability I'd give a troupe of clowns who start a custard pie fight - you don't expect anything else of clowns right?

But it's the presence of Ms Slick in the song and the video that elicits a further emotion as well as same old, same old boredom; a crushing sense of disappointment and a feeling of being badly let down by someone who really should know better. Its like finding out your local vicar has been arrested for possessing child porn; the offence by itself is bad enough, but the identity of the offender somehow makes it all the worse, and her golly gosh pantomime exclamations on "Let 'em say were crazy, what do they know?" generates wince inducing embarrassment for someone so willing to trample all over her own legacy.

But that's one for Slick and her conscience to sort out. For the matter at hand, just about the best thing you can say about 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now' is that it's not as drop dead awful as their previous 'We Built This City'. But as that song truly was Drop Dead Awful, I guess that's a case of damning with feint praise.

* Actually, Heart did record 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now', only they called their version 'All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You'. And it's worse. Far, far worse. Oh my god is it worse.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

1987 Madonna: La Isla Bonita

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" - so runs one of the most famous opening lines in English literature as Daphne Du Maurier's unnamed narrator recalls events from her past in 'Rebecca'. Madonna's been dreaming too, opening with "Last night I dreamt of San Pedro" in a song where she dredges up ghosts of summer's past and gets all dewy eyed about a holiday in Spain. Or maybe the Canaries or Balearics ('La Isla Bonita' translates as 'The Beautiful Island'). Somewhere hot anyway: "I want to be where the sun warms the sky, When its time for siesta you can watch them go by"

It's clear that Madonna is trying to break free of her New York dance roots and tap into her own family heritage with a song that tries its best to get under the skin of a sultry, Latin groove. Unfortunately, 'tried' and 'tries' are suitable adjectives for a track that overreaches itself somewhat in a welter of 'Carry On Señor' Mediterranean musical clichés that emanate from an ensemble of flamenco guitar riffs, bongos and maracas that combine to create a sound as stiff as a rusty hinge.
Any laidback, summery vibe is sacrificed on the altar of everyone trying just a bit too hard, approaching it a bit too studiously and taking it all a bit too seriously. Madonna's Toreador hat and pained expression on that cover shot provide ample evidence for this by themselves (if the sleeve was gatefold then no doubt it would open to show her profile carrying a stuffed toy bull under her arm).

To hammer the point home, the promotional video had Madonna striking all manner of artily intense and wistful poses to show she's really hurting in her longing for another time and another place, but the general effect is of someone freshly landed on the Costa Brava who suddenly thinks they may have left the gas on back home. A set of dull lyrics do nothing to grease the wheels, managing as they do to cram in sambas, siestas, San Pedro and the occasional Spanish phrase into the mix until all that's missing is some backing cries of 'Ole!'

And yet for all it's po-faced posturing, 'La Isla Bonita' is only slightly less annoying than 'Agadoo' and is in essence little more than the bigger sister of 'Y Viva Espana' in the package holiday song sweepstake. But although it shares the same bloodline and all of the clichés, it has none of the campy joy that Sylvia brought to her tune:
"Quite by chance to hot romance I found the answer. Flamenco dancers are by far the finest bet. There was one who whispered oh hasta la vista, each time I kissed him behind the castanet. He rattled his maracas close to me, in no time I was trembling at the knee" - oh yes, you can tell Sylvia enjoyed her two weeks in the Med.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

1987 Ferry Aid: Let It Be

You don't see any of those charity mannequins outside shops anymore do you? You know what I mean, those life-size plastic figures of a boy in callipers or a guide dog with a slot somewhere on it with the idea being that, as you pass by, you recognise a good cause when you see it and drop some money in the slot before walking on feeling pleased with yourself. And that feeling of being pleased for helping others was all that you got; these things didn't dispense tokens or certificates or badges that said 'I'm A Good Person'. They didn't dispense ropy singles either.

Yes, Ferry Aid was a charitable concern organised by The Sun newspaper. It's aim was not to raise money for former Roxy Music singers fallen on evil days but for the families of the victims of the Zeebrugge disaster where
a sea ferry capsized in March of that year killing 193 passengers and crew. And so under the patronage of Paul McCartney, a motley crew of the stars of the day with time on their hands (Boy George, Paul King, Bananarama, Mel and Kim et al) duly gathered to have a stab at The Beatle's 'Let It Be'. For charity.

'Let It Be' was always one of my favourite Beatles tracks. Even after all these years I always find something calming in the dignity of the psuedo religious overtones of McCartney's lyric and the piano led, lean spiritual arrangement that's augmented by Billy Preston's sweet organ sound.

But you can forget all that with this. Ferry Aid's version
is underlined in thick black crayon by a Stock Aitken and Waterman produced straight linn drum beat that fires a Magnum round straight into the face of the original's solemnity and drags us into karaoke hell. Which is exactly how the various stars tackle it, delivering their parts with mock sincerity that borders on the laughable in their earnestness, with Ruby Turner and Edwin Starr in particular vying for 'Best Over The Top Vocal Performance' Oscar.

If this isn't enough of a stake through the song's heart, then the coup de grace is delivered in the form of an inappropriately whammy whammy Gary Moore guitar solo that sounds like he was labouring under the impression he was still in Thin Lizzy. It finally careers off the road completely in a car crash camp fire caterwauling mass singalong that, ironically, does the exact opposite of letting anything be and drags it out well past the six minute mark.

The only person to emerge from this unscathed is Kate Bush who delivers her lines within the spirit of The Beatles' original, but it's slim pickings otherwise. McCartney's presence adds credibility to the project while at the same time removing it from himself
- why on earth he saw fit to give his seal of approval to this horrible mess of sickly hand wringing and over produced aural pornography is anyone's guess, and what 'Let It Be' has to do with ferries or mass deaths at sea I do not know. It raised money for a good cause so fair enough, but couldn't they have cut out the middle men and just got people to put a pound in a ferry shaped box rather than create this monstrosity as an incentive to part with it? Apparently not.

Monday, 3 August 2009

1987 Mel & Kim: Respectable

Hailing from London, Mel and Kim were the brightest stars in the burgeoning roster of Stock, Aitken and Waterman in 1987 and 'Respectable' was the second number one for the team.

An out and out dance track, the first thing that most people remember about
'Respectable' is the sung 'Tay tay tay tay' vocal stutter before the chorus, but in truth the whole track is a surprisingly wordy affair with the lyrics adding a whiff of rebellion to go with the dance moves; the 'Take or leave us, only please believe us We are never gonna be respectable' refrain acts as a baited hook to catch the pre-teen with an attitude who was too young to remember Toyah. While it's not The Clash, it's proof positive that SAW still had a certain layer of grit to their output in 1987, an edge not yet dulled by the relentless tsunami of sugary pop that was to come.

True, the attitude is dressed up in a package that's more Top Deck shandy than alcopops; Mel and Kim's lack of respectability probably only extends as far as not making their beds in the morning rather than getting strung out on heroin and having their faces tattooed at night, but it's there nonetheless and it presents the duo as two Kwik Save Madonnas from the council estate.

Because despite the faux Americana of the video, from the opening bars on there is no doubt that 'Respectable' is of British origin. With a chunkily basic rhythm and a catchily simple tune, 'Respectable' is far removed from the complex integrated beats of House, the bass funk swing of disco or the Grande Dame statements of Madonna herself, yet it surges ever forward with a watch-like precision and feel good energy that will keep any dancing feet moving, even if it did already sound curiously retro before its time in 1987.

Manufactured it may be, but it's crafted with care rather than jerry built and 'Respectable' is a classy pop tune unfairly overlooked by eighties nostalgists, making it all the more of a shame that Mel and Kim's bright star wasn't destined to shine for long.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

1987 Boy George: Everything I Own

It's fair to say that 1986 was not a good year for the former George Alan O'Dowd. With Culture Club messily imploding in a welter of in-fighting and dwindling public interest, George found himself outed as a heroin addict by the tabloids who branded him Public Enemy Number One. 'Everything I Own' was his first solo single, a comeback of sorts in the wake of all the negativity.

Like UB40's take on 'Red Red Wine' before him, 'Everything I Own' is a cover version of a cover version. The original was a hit for soft rockers Bread in 1972, but Ken Boothe reformatted it into a reggae/rocksteady arrangement and took it to number one two years later. I don't know if George ever heard the original, but he'd certainly heard Boothe's take on it, what with his own version being virtually a tracing paper copy.

In truth, George's troubled recent past probably generated no small amount of sympathy with a public who now regarded him as a national institution having a rough ride of things rather than the curiosity of old, and they were probably equally keen to see some colour put back into a top forty that had taken a turn for the bland. Indeed, the lyrics can be taken as a plea for forgiveness to his fans:

"I would give everything I own,
just to have you back again".

Who could resist? But sentimentality aside, while there were often elements of reggae and lover's rock in Culture Club's output, this is strictly autopilot stuff. George's voice was never a weak link in anything he did, but neither was it ever the main selling point either and it adds nothing new to this to differentiate it from either of the other versions.

The end product (and 'product' it is) is a hollow and unrewarding vanity recording that, in playing it safe, condemns it to lack the necessary imagination to give it the legs to break free of it's 'Comeback Single' status. No surprises then that it was quickly forgotten when the comeback fizzled out. As inessential a single as the eighties ever produced.

1987 Ben E King: Stand By Me

The second round of the Levi's 501 adverts saw Percy Sledge and Ben E King enjoying a late career burst of publicity, though only King was to make it to number one (Sledge would have to make do with a number 2 slot with a re-issue of 'When A Man Loves A Woman'). I've already run through my disdain in principle for this kind of carry on so I won't bore by repeating it here. Though saying that, in truth part of me is secretly glad that 'Stand By Me' gained a new prominence in 1987 because it rescued it from burial by the 1975 Lennon cover version, something I can't say I ever really cared for but which usually got dragged out for radio play.

So what's left to say about 'Stand By Me' after almost 50 years? Well, for one it still sounds as mysterious and direct as it did the day it was recorded. Age has not withered it largely because the themes it explores are timeless. The spare, almost primitive scrapes and chings of the opening raises the tension till it crackles like electricity before King's voice cuts in with the decisive
"When the night has come, and the land is dark and the moon is the only light we'll see. No I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid.Just as long as you stand, stand by me"

By juxtaposing mankind's base need for companionship with one of it's primal fears (the dark; the way he phrases 'night' makes it sound like the sun going down was the worst thing that could possibly happen to the pair), King expresses a depth of emotion that transcends modern 'love' manifestations of hearts, flowers or moon in June sentimentality by stripping it down to the basics of need and devotion. And though indeed King is expressing primordial yearning, 'Stand By Me' is shot through with an almost religious awe that ensures King's almost gospel shout anchors it to a baseline of humanity and respect.

There's no certainty that King's longing 'just as long as you stand by me' is reciprocated here; rather, there's an uncertainty and doubt that puts a keen edge of King's vocal and a lyric that never resolves itself and ends with a repeated 'oh stand by me, stand by me, stand by me' that gets more desperate in it's pleading as the song fades into the nothing and darkness that King fears so much.
As such, the words could have been written in 1061 just as well as 1961. They resonated just the same in 1987 and they will still be as relevant as long as there are skies and mountains waiting to fall to the sea, making it a song for every age and not just one whose fancy is tickled by Eddie Kidd in a white dinner jacket. 'Stand By Me' was, is and remains a wonderful recording. But then, you already knew that.

1987 Aretha Franklin & George Michael: I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)

It's astonishing to realise that this was the first time that Aretha Franklin had been at number on in the UK. The artist who performed 'Respect', 'I Say A Little Prayer', 'Spanish Harlem' et al had to wait until a duet with a former teen star before she got there. As I say, astonishing.

Franklin, of course, had already hit the top ten as part of a duet before in 1985 with the Eurhythmics and 'Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves'. But whereas that was a blatant attempt by Annie Lennox to try (and fail) to hijack her star, there is far more of a quid pro quo arrangement here; Franklin would have been keen to re-ignite her fire with a new generation and saw Michael's name as a genuine vehicle to piggy back on, while Michael himself would have welcomed the kudos that Franklin's name would have brought as he tried to forge a name as a 'serious artist' and put his past to bed.

'Like a warrior that fights' it begins, but if it's a battle, then Franklin wins hands down. Even on her worst day 'I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)' is the sort of mid tempo, middle of the road psuedo soul number she could have sung to bits with a cork in her mouth. It's like asking Chopin to play Chopsticks.

For his own part, Michael simply tries too hard - his vocal growls may sound like an Otis Redding to his own ears, but to everyone else he is (to repeat) simply trying too hard and it keeps this rather clodhopping song firmly on the ground (where, to be fair, it probably belongs) and Franklin's best efforts to make it soar are hampered by a structure that's
strait jacket tight and keeps one of her feet nailed firmly to the floor.

Because 'I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)' is a rather pedestrian effort. Whether Michael was too scared to go head to head with her on something she could really have let rip on I don't know, but the straight 4/4 Linn drum thumps out the dull, predictable pace of a policeman on his beat, pointing out exactly where the twin vocal parts should begin and end and offering no scope for on the fly improvisation.

'I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)' obviously sets itself up as some kind of musical 'event' for the age, but in doing so it makes the damp squib anti-climax all the more pronounced. By the time it ends, both vocalists sound heartily bored with the repetition and each other though the patience of the listener will have probably worn thin long before then. But still, Aretha's only UK number one eh? Astonishing.

1987 Steve 'Silk' Hurley: Jack Your Body

Now here's something that's going to cleave opinion, 'Jack Your Body' is a slice of pure Chicago House that would have sounded as alien to those not in the know as Little Richard must have to Perry Como fans in the 1950's. The shock of the new can often be unnerving, particularly if you don't 'get it', and House marked a generational gap between those that understood (generally the under twenty fives) and the rest of us.

Sure, it's dance music, but so is Madonna and it's far removed from the verse - chorus - verse structure and plumbline straight backbeat of her output. Or most other dance music from disco on to be honest. A common complaint was 'There's no tune or lyrics', but House made a virtue of doing away with tradition and replacing it with fast, erratic beats based around kick drum fills and dropout sequences courtesy of sequencers and drum machines that human hands would struggle to reproduce. It's a sound to feel and experience as much as listen to.

'Jack Your Body' is an early but typical example of the genre. Taking in isolation, it's a fish out of water, a single piece of a jigsaw that sits in splendid isolation amongst Bon Jovi, Elkie Brooks or the Gap Band in the January 1987 top twenty. Heard as part of a DJ set in a packed club then it's a revelation, a dense mix of rhythm and counter rhythm that lets you take your pick as to which one your body wanted to follow.

It's somehow prescient that something so achingly 'now' should depose something so obviously 'then' at number one, but I've no doubt that haters of house/dance music will be quick to point out that it isn't something that generally gets heavy rotation as a 'golden oldie' and that a re-issue or chart re-entry on it's thirtieth anniversary is unlikely. But I think they'd be being a bit petty. Certainly it's not a track for everybody, but 'Jack Your Body' was a pointer to the future, a map to the second summer of love and, as a certain Mr Dylan once sang, 'Don't criticise what you can't understand'.