Wednesday, 16 September 2009

1988 Cliff Richard: Mistletoe And Wine

Cliff's Christmas singles have become something of a comic cause celebre of late with many viewing them as little more than seven inch clay pigeons targets that appear once a year and exist only to take pot shots at. And again, from the outset, I'll hold my hands up and confess that I absolutely loathe this song, so don't expect too much objectivity here. Why do I loathe it? Well I think my hatred can be broadly split into three separate headings, starting with the lyrics.

"Christmas time, mistletoe and wine"

Mistletoe and wine? What kind of odd pairing is that? I've answered my own question really because that's what it is, an odd, meaningless pairing that exists solely to throw together some Christmas clichés in order to make the internal rhyme meter fit. 'Mistletoe' is needed because there aren't too many other festive three syllable words to make the line scan properly (go on, try and think of one), and the 'wine' is needed to link to the next line.

And even after crowbarring that lot together, the best they can come up with to follow is "Children singing Christian rhyme". You can almost see the stress fractures as Cliff tries to force 'rhyme' and 'wine' to rhyme when they clearly don't - if you mean 'carols' then frikking say it. One hopes that whatever 'rhymes' the children are singing do a better job.

I doubt they could do a worse one in terms of music in any case (my second heading of hatred) - 'Mistletoe And Wine' minces along on a sing song, nursery rhyme of a tune with a single line of one key melody idiocy that Richard and his backing follow with no deviation (hence creating the need for the strait jacket rhyming). Simplistic and childish, it makes Slade's 'Merry Christmas Everybody' sound like the 'Brandenburg Concerto' and it bores where it should uplift.

But I think what I hate most about this is the faux ideal, almost Dickensian imagery of 'Christmas' that Cliff forces upon us. 'Mistletoe', 'wine', 'logs on the fire', 'Christian rhymes' - this may well be what goes down in chez Richards in late December, but it's not the norm among the general populace and it's the preachy, over earnest tone of the humourless, joyless vocal that presents all this as an ideal to aspire to that grates. One look at the picture on the cover shows Cliff is not larking around here.

And more than that, the usual 'goodwill to all men' message that's usually enough to make any Christmas song work isn't enough here it seems. There are material factors to consider too with it being 'A time for giving, a time for getting'. So, by getting a five year old to knock together the lyrics for him, Cliff manages to somehow subvert the very message he's meant to be preaching. And he's so wrapped up in it all that he doesn't even notice. Incredible.

So, there are three things I hate about this song then - music, lyrics and message. Not bad. I would have sworn before I started I'd have at least hit double figures. But it's an apt end to a year of number ones that have been mostly number twos. God bless them, one and all.

Monday, 14 September 2009

1988 Robin Beck: The First Time

That Coca Cola logo on the sleeve gives the game away early doors - 'The First Time' is an extended version of a jingle written for one of the late eighties coke adverts given a new lease of life as a single. It's the same way that the New Seekers' 1971 number one 'I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing' was a modified version of the famous 'I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke' ditty.

I remember the advert well, and watching it again on YouTube not only brings back a warm glow of nostalgia, but also reveals how well the tune worked in the context of a one minute TV ad. Cutting the Coke apron strings to let it stand on it's own two feet away from the fast cut, feel good imagery presents rather a different proposition.

Gone is the short, punchy soft rock vibe and in comes a slowed down, chug-a-lug interpretation that lands somewhere between the Scylla of a power ballad and the Charybdis of straight up glam metal. Beck wails and moans like Pat Benatar on a bad hair day whilst drums crash and guitars squeal around her, but all involved mistake volume for substance and the end product is rather hollow at heart.

"First time first love oh what feeling is this

Electricity flows with the very first kiss
Like a break in the clouds and the first ray of sun

I can feel it inside something new has begun"

Ostensibly a song about falling in love, 'The First Time' sorely lacks any genuine feeling of excitement and, compared to Belinda Carlisle's exhilaration back on 'Heaven Is A Place On Earth', Beck sounds like she's reading the words off a crib sheet with one eye on the pay cheque.

But how else could it have turned out? That picture on the cover is a still from the ad itself and it hammers home the fact that this is not so much a Robin Beck single as an extended marketing campaign for a fizzy drink. In that sense it meets its ends admirably, but it leaves 'The First Time' with as much inherent goodness as the product it's advertising. And how much goodness can a product that seems to be using a blowjob as an advertising tool
have? I mean, look closely at that cover, you can just imagine the bloke saying 'Go on love, it won't bite'. 'The First Time' indeed!

Sunday, 13 September 2009

1988 Enya: Orinoco Flow

There's something about 'new age' music that seriously raises my hackles, something to do with the way such 'not proper' music is taken everso seriously by the sort of worthy people who treat it as a religious experience and listen to it with one hand pressed tightly over their eyes. I often see multi CD boxsets of 'soothing' and 'relaxing' Andean pan pipes or whale songs stacked up by the till in pound shops and, rather than soothing the savage beast in me, the sight sets it running at full pelt. Factor in any trace of a flute and I reach for the bottle.

Though it's from the 'new age' stable, 'Orinoco Flow' has nary a flute in sight. Rather than the usual ambient wash of naturally found sound, it's heart beats to the same plucked staccato string motif that T'Pau and George Michael before it borrowed from Andy Williams. Lyrically too, 'Orinoco Flow' doesn't rely on cheapjack gimmicks of fairy rings, pixies and distant castles with lights in the far tower to generate it's atmosphere. Rather, it's an earthbound checklist of foreign places most of us will only ever visit in our heads.

In place of the usual lazy series of multilayered 'oohs' and 'aahs', Enya provides a lyrical travelogue that namechecks far flung places where waves crash on distant shores in a way that could be regarded as meaning nothing or everything in equal measure. For example, you can take the title to refer to a wistful boat ride down that Venezuelan river, or you can take it as simply the name of the studio where it was recorded. Depth is there if you want to lose yourself in the exotic itinerary, but if you're above that sort of thing then the song alone can provide enjoyment in spades.

It certainly stands out when set against the Kylies and the Glens around it, but that's not to say that it's anything startlingly original - the likes of Elizabeth Fraser, Lisa Gerrard and Caroline Crawley (to name but three) were producing similar sounds based on almost phonetic singing over in indieland throughout the eighties, but Enya broadened the palette from their insular worldview and provided a broader, escapist landscape for a less specific audience to wallow in and pretend that one day they themselves will tag along for the ride.

Evocative and atmospheric, there's not too much to dislike about 'Orinoco Flow' and it provides one bright light in what turned out to be a dismal year for number ones.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

1988 Whitney Houston: One Moment In Time

If ever over the top wailing and emoting were to become an Olympic sport, Whitney Houston would be bent double by the weight of the gold medals around her neck. So who better to sing an over emotive song written specifically for the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics? Especially a song structured both musically and lyrically to invite wailing emotion the way shit invites flies on a hot day. Who indeed?

"You're a winner for a lifetime if you seize that one moment in time
Make it shine

Give me one moment in time

When I'm more than I thought I could be

When all of my dreams are a heart beat away

And the answers are all up to me

Give me one moment in time

When I'm racing with destiny

Then in that one moment of time

I will be, I will be, I will be free"

Ah yes, 'winner', 'dreams', 'hearts', 'seize', 'free', 'destiny'. And 'me'. All the usual suspect inspirational buzz words are here, freshly dripping with naked, raw aspiration in a style that could have been copied directly from some corporate team building literature. In fact, her fellow Americans could probably rip up their constitution and replace it with this fun size summation of the 'American Dream' for every "little engine that could" to sing each morning with a clenched fist over their heart.

'One Moment In Time' is a fairly grisly experience all told, an empty vessel that makes a hell of a lot of noise. It's the musical equivalent of having an Army drill instructor screaming in your ear to 'drop and give him ten' over and over again, with the experience getting ever more draining the longer it goes on. But for once, you can't blame Houston. She was cherry picked to go all air raid siren over it and by god she does - you can almost hear all involved pause and take a deep breath at 1:50 before she lets rip with a final ball busting blast of the chorus that could have lit the Olympic flame all by itself. Whoa dude.

Friday, 11 September 2009

1988 U2: Desire

By this stage of their career U2 had embraced the 'rock & roll' mythos to the extent that they appeared to genuinely believe a few trips southside were enough to qualify them as black American bluesmen from the bad side of Memphis. They weren't of course, and the sheer absurdity of the proposition fell apart double time when the notion was stretched across four sides of the bloated folly that was 'Rattle And Hum', though it fared slightly better when taken in bite size chunks like 'Desire'.

Although it broke a run of four consecutive cover versions at number one, it's no small irony that 'Desire' itself is an amalgamated car crash of garage band, Stooges and Seeds (et al) borrowed scuzz and cliche built around a Bo Diddley 'shave and a haircut' rhythm; 'Desire' clumps along in a welter of fuzzy guitar, harmonica riffs and handclaps that would have led directly into a brick wall paralysis were it not for Bono's vocal.

With a lyric that's all sawn off Jim Morrison metaphor and semi-mystical bluster ("She's a candle burning in my room. Yeah I'm like the needle, needle and spoon"), Bono does just about enough to convince that he knows and cares about what he's on about. It's a decent performance, but it's not enough and the main failing of 'Desire' is that although it's short and direct, any sense of spontaneity is absent to the point that it sounds more like the song U2 thought they ought to be recording rather than anything that was knocked up on the hoof during a studio jam. More designer stubble than tramp's beard, it's a conscious attempt to tap into a dirty rock & roll tradition by a band who to all intents and purposes have diligently read their copies of 'Mystery Train' and 'Psychotic Reaction' to tatters but haven't bothered to listen to any of the actual music. The gimmick of recording tracks at Sun Studios was never going to summon up enough atmosphere to paper over the cracks to an extent that convinces; if this stuff isn't going to come naturally, then it isn't going to come at all. In U2's case it only very rarely does, and certainly not here.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

1988 The Hollies: He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother

And still the cover versions a-keep-on-a-coming. And now not just a plain old cover version, but one that's a straight re-release of a song with almost twenty candles on its cake; 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother' was originally a number three hit for The Hollies in 1969.

Though he didn't write it, Neil Diamond provided the first recorded version though to be fair, it's become as closely associated with The Hollies as robins are to Christmas. This re-release wasn't part of yet another jeans campaign, but instead arrived on the back of a television advert for lite beer ('He Ain't Heavy'.... Geddit? I'll let you take a few moments while you zip up your ribs).

The origins of the title may be disputed, but there's no doubt as to meaning of the metaphor; the selfless act of looking out for someone else to your own detriment, a sixth form version of 'Two Little Boys' if you like. This chimed well with the message of love and peace that was prevalent in the late sixties and, as 'Two Little Boys' is a favourite of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it sits as comfortably in the 1988 chart as a case of irony piles too.

But as Ian Hunter once sang, 'Old Records Never Die' and the quality of the track and the performance spans the twenty years in an eyeblink. In 1969, the string led backing and floating, minor key harmonica riff could have been cribbed directly from the 'How To Do West Coast Hippie' manual, but the epic feel of the song and the sense that it had something to say for itself raises it well above the merely derivative and now sounds timeless rather than of its time.

It's certainly a departure from the snappy pop that used to be The Hollies stock in trade and the impassioned lead vocal from Allan Clarke can perhaps be seen as a two fingers to former member Graham Nash, recently departed to ply his trade on that same West Coast, to show that The Hollies could do hippy idealism along with the best of them.

And that's why I commented on the 'sixth form' nature of the song; 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother' is as idealistic a song as they come, a dewy eyed plea for getting along beamed direct from an era where such messages were ten a penny. Which isn't necessarily cause to damn it in modern eyes, but I think it speaks volumes that the song's own internal message was enough to carry it in 1969, though by the time the self obsessed individualistic society of 1988 rolled around it needed a quirky advert for piss weak lager to set it on its way.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

1988 Phil Collins: A Groovy Kind Of Love

Another number one, and wouldn't you know it, another cover version. 'A Groovy Kind Of Love' was written by Toni Wine and Carole Bayer Sager. Although much covered, it had only appeared in the UK charts twice before with versions by Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders (1965), and Les Gray, formerly of Mud (1977).

The Fontana version is probably the closest to definitive, with a reading that suggests the carefree manner of someone wistfully counting their blessings in love. It's over in less than two minutes, and fair play too; being less of a song and more of a throwaway rhyming exercise, there isn't enough of a backbone support anything longer.

Collins's version slows the whole thing down to an echo drenched dirge, doubling the running time in the process and delivering the lyrics with the mock solemnity of someone reading an Agnus Dei. In trying to wring some heartbreak from a source that never had it in the first place, Collins and his whiny vocal do not give the impression that this particular love has any groove in it whatsoever. In fact, it sounds dead and buried. Then again, I think it's fair to say that Collins is not, never has been and never will be my idea of 'groovy'

Monday, 7 September 2009

1988 Yazz & The Plastic Population: The Only Way Is Up

There's something quite, quite disheartening about the relentless parade of cover versions to make it to number one this late in the decade - this is the fifth this year alone, not counting the ones based on samples that are essentially other people's songs anyway, and there will be more to come. Was there really such a paucity of ambition and expectation amongst the record buying public back then? Apparently there was. Thankfully, 'The Only Way Is Up' represents more a re-imagining that a straight cover, a blowing off of the cobwebs on the bonnet to reveal a shiny new engine underneath.

The original by Otis Clay is a surprisingly muted and minor key slice of string led faux Philli soul. I say 'faux' because though Clay tries his best to get on his good foot, it's a strangely subdued affair. Clay's lead vocal constantly stays behind and beneath the melody and the singing duties on the all important chorus are shared in a call and response split between the lead and a rather flat female backing crew that makes the whole thing slouch where it should be running.

There's no such worries with Yazz's version. The hyper production courtesy of Coldcut licks its finger and shoves it directly into the national grid with a bright, techno thump of a backing track that rattles along at a tempo a good double time of that which Clay managed. Yazz too blares out the lyrics with a different mindset than Clay, meaning her approach puts a whole fresh spin on the song that makes it a different proposition altogether.

Gone are the quiet nights in whispering soulful sweet nothings to her boyfriend and planning a cosy future together vibe; Yazz isn't much interested in any of that. By pitching her delivery in a far higher key and a directness that makes every line sound like a question, she is out to grab the present by the throat and squeeze it till it bends to her will.

The build up to the chorus generates an excited anticipation before it erupts into the delirious shout of 'The only way is UP.....BABY!!!', a shout that demands three exclamation marks whereas Clay didn't manage to generate one. It's a sky scraping yell of confidence, of youth and of confidence in youth. An aspirational war cry that demands a clenched fist pump of the air as it's delivered or listened to and it's effect is such that it can momentarily strip away ten mental years from anyone listening.

'The Only Way Is Up' is a rare example of a pop/dance crossover that retains enough of the identity of both genres to satisfy both sets of fans. It's energy personified, a gallon of Red Bull in four minutes and it manages to forge an identity of its own in such a way that I bet that most people believed that Yazz/Coldcut wrote it themselves. Then again, this is such a radical re-working of the base material that they may as well have.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

1988 Glen Medeiros: Nothing's Gonna Change My Love For You

If history tells us anything it's that the UK charts will always have room in its bosom for a pretty boy singer with a bright white smile on his face and a soppy ballad on his lips. So far the eighties have given us Johnny Logan and Nick Berry - they came, they saw, they conquered and, job done, they drifted off into obscurity.

Unlike Johnny and Nick, Glen actually had a half decent song to sing courtesy of Michael Masser and Gerry Goffin. Or rather, it was a half decent enough song when George Benson sang it in 1984; just about the best and worst thing you can say about the melody to 'Nothing's Gonna Change My Love For You' is that it's pretty. Prettiness alone won't carry it far though and it needs a thick coat of paint from either the vocalist or the arrangement to give it a dimension other than twee. The way George did in fact.

Medeiros's version, however, dispenses with Benson's light and soulful touch in favour of (the by now grating) Linn drums and an abrasive plink plonk electric piano, two instruments guaranteed to suck the soul out of anything the way a naked flame burns oxygen, even more so when they are drenched in reverb and echo the way they are here.

His self production creates solemn cathedrals of dead space that his flat voice just can't fill by itself, and despite being mixed well to the fore, his breathless delivery`floats beneath the backing music in a key of its own. It gives the sound a nervy, edgy feel, almost as if something is perpetually on the point of collapsing and it creates a tension that doesn't make for a relaxing soundtrack for life's more passionate moments.

But despite these shortcomings, the song's inherent sweetness saves it from disaster. Predictable though it may be, it is a pretty enough ditty that, although not everybody's cup of tea, does provides the kind of mawkish sentimentality that will always find it's own level with a correspondingly willing audience. And in this case, the overdose of saccharine will forever be tempered by knowing that the cheesy grin he wears on the cover to this would soon be wiped off by a scathing Juke Box Jury panel who would reduce him to tears on air. Schadenfreude the Germans call it, but I just thought it served him right.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

1988 Bros: I Owe You Nothing

And on the eighth day, the lord said 'Let there be Bros'. Because to my memory, that's how they came about; one minute they weren't while the next there they were, an overnight teen sensation at number one. Nice work if you can get it. Whether this is what actually happened or not I can't say (or be bothered to find out to be honest - why spoil a good memory?), but it seemed that way at the time, and I'll happily bet the farm that they didn't pay too many dues slogging around the pub circuit.

Hindsight has shown that Bros were forerunners of the boy band epidemic of the nineties. Sure, there had been teen boy bands designed to appeal to the pre pubescents in the past, but where acts like The Monkees or Jackson 5 (to take two extremes) had the talent and the songs to back them up, Bros were sold entirely on hype, the image on the cover of their records rather than what was in the grooves. Talent was in short supply within the set up and 'I Owe You Nothing' does precious little to convince otherwise.

Rather than go to the trouble of writing an actual song, the folk behind
this seemed happy enough to let Matt Goss improvise a tune of his own around the "I owe you nothing, nothing, nothing at all" refrain which he repeats until the cows are home, milked, calved and slaughtered. Goss gives it his best shot, but despite his enthusiasm any group of words with the same number of syllables would fit and work just as well in this setting (try it......see what I mean)? Like some Butlins Redcoat on a drizzly Saturday night, 'I Owe You Nothing' does it's darndest to get everyone in a party mood with blaring keyboards, a busy busy bassline and copious 'Wooooo, Oooh yeahhh!'s, but the sound is an anaemic thin slice of Lo Cost funk that tries to cover up it's failings with a typically thin, bright and brash eighties production.

It's a production that does not gel with the generally poisonous tone of the whole affair; "I'll watch you suffer with no feelings, no feelings at all" - is this something that pre-teens can relate to in any way I wonder? Probably not, but they probably didn't listen that closely
anyway, not when they had Matt's mug to swoon over and they'd be the last to recognise this for the abject failure that it is.

And that it fails, and fails badly, is down to the fact that it's lazy, it
simply does not try hard enough to do anything other than to provide some sounds for Messer's Goss and the other one to prance about and cut shapes to. At least SAW put in a modicum of effort on their stuff, 'I Owe You Nothing' sounds more like a rough demo than the finished article.

So lazy then, but I think that no matter what anyone else may or may not have been able to bring to the table to improve it, nothing would dispel the empty, sinking feeling a few seconds in when Goss does his best Poundstretcher Michael Jackson on the opening "I'll watch you crumble like a very old wall". Oh dear. Bros had their time in the sun, but it didn't last long because on the ninth day the lord grew displeased with his creation and said 'Let there be no more Bros'. And lo, Bros were no more. It's just a shame the door wasn't locked and barred behind them. There would be far worse to come through it in the future.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

1988 The Timelords: Doctorin' The Tardis

The Timelords were another alias of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, formerly of The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu and soon to be far better known as the KLF. 'Doctorin' The Tardis' is based on chunky samples of Gary Glitter ('Rock & Roll Part 2') and The Sweet ('Block Buster') with snippets of the Dr Who theme music, all fused together with the finesse of a back street garage cut and shut. It's an 'in your face' pillaging of seventies popular culture wrapped in a contemporary dance format and is as subtle as a rusted ripsaw.

Knowing the reputation of Drummond and Cauty as industry pranksters, it's tempting to go all psuedo and argue that 'Doctorin' The Tardis' is a custard pie in the face of the current trend for sampled house tunes (the very title could be taken as a parody of Coldcut's 'Doctorin' The House'), but I think this may be stretching the evidence a little, and those who do try and stretch it to that length need to have a good chat with themselves; 'Doctorin' The Tardis' is a trashy, novelty pop song pure and simple. Like most novelty songs, it amuses on first listen, but nobody under the age of twelve should have any cause to listen to it more than once.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

1988 Wet Wet Wet: With A Little Help From My Friends/Billy Bragg: She's Leaving Home

Charity time again, Childline this time. The Beatles' 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' album was re-recorded in its entirety by various artists to greater and lesser effect for the cause, but this was the only single taken from it.

One single, two songs - there was much hype as to the 'double A side' nature of this release but I doubt too many people flipped it over to listen to Billy Bragg put 'She's Leaving Home' through an industrial meat grinder. And if they did, they didn't do it again (I well remember the crushing sense of disappointment and confusion amongst the Top Of The Pops audience when Bragg appeared to perform 'his' side on the single's fourth week at number one instead of
Wet Wet Wet. It wasn't number one the week after). No, it's the Wet's track that's the chief selling point here.

Whilst the Beatles' original was deliberately written in a limited key range to accommodate Ringo Starr's own flat and limited voice, Marti Pellow cheeses his way through his ever present fixed grin
('Oooooh! I get high') with none of the self doubt implicit in the words, while the rest of the boys accompany him with all the competence and style of a covers band playing the local workingman's club on a Saturday night.

In fact, to get the most out of this I'd advise listening to it sandwiched in-between three games of bingo and a fat stand up comedian. Chicken in a basket optional.

1988 Fairground Attraction: Perfect

I'm guessing that all of us know someone who sets themselves up as a 'proper' music fan. You know the type, they're the ones who look down their turned up noses at anything 'manufactured or 'fake' with the usual sanctimonious 'they're not playing their instrument's!!!' dismissal. And, hands up, he who is without sin in a glasshouse etc - I was one of these self same people too. Back when my contemporaries were Duran Balleting through the decade, I could be found sat up in my ivory tower studiously listening to 'Brain Salad Surgery' with a furrowed brow. 'Proper' music you see.

'Perfect' could be classed as 'proper' music - a 'proper' band playing their own 'proper' song on 'proper' instruments. As 'proper' as they come in fact. And fair play, 'Perfect' is a song I ought to like because it pushes all of my buttons. A jaunty, jazzy double bass led shuffle and a vocal dripping with a latter day Francophile Patsy Cline air - it's the sort of thing you'd expect to hear being busked outside the Moulin Rouge while pouting girls in berets walk by. In modern times, Madeline Peyroux has released three albums of this kind of thing and I've lapped up each and every one of them like a thirsty Labrador. But I don't like this.

The limp acoustic shuffle of the brushed drum rhythm plays out as rather a clichéd take on the genre rather than the real thing, more of a stock library recording marked 'French Club: Evening Ambience' than a live recording of the same as it has all the substance of smoke once Eddi Reader's strong vocal is factored out. In fact, there's barely a song there at all, and what there is is almost wholly dependent on the repetition of the chorus to drag it into some kind of structure.

And repetition is right - why bother with line and metre when you can stretch out words into as many syllables as you want to get them to fit:

"It's got to be-e-e-e-e-e-e-e


The very use of the word 'perfect' calls for the smart context of a full stop, but this bizarre and rather lazy stutter sounds more like something broken or else a stuck needle - it reminds more of a contrived football chant more than anything else, something designed to get people singing along and nothing else. But whatever, it's far from the perfection Reader is looking for. It's smug, and it annoys in its smugness.

To my ears, 'Perfect' has never sounded half as natural and rootsy as it likes to think it is. There's no grit here and no grime, just a flat surface buffed to a high sheen. Sure, up against the majority of it's bedfellows in the 1998 charts it must have sounded as earthy as a Blind Lemon Jefferson field recording, but closer listening reveals a track every bit as contrived as the latest Kylie Minogue single (though aimed at a different audience) and I don't think it's any co-incidence that Fairground Attraction hit paydirt just when CD was becoming the dominant music format. For what could be a better way to listen to 'proper' shiny music than on a shiny silver disc that promised 'perfect sound forever'? A claim, incidentally, that lasted only slightly longer than the band themselves.

1988 S'Express: Theme from S'Express

It's surprising how quickly a new broom can turn into an old hat. Barely months previously, M/A/R/R/S's use of samples on 'Pump Up The Volume' sounded like, if not the future, then certainly the present as it is lived on another planet. It was new, exciting and came with a hint of danger in it's illegality, yet it didn't take long for the whole old lamps for new genre to take on a definite 'ho hum'-ness.

S'Express was basically Mark Moore, a major figure in the early years of UK house/acid house music. 'Theme from S'Express' is based none too loosely on, inter alia, Rose Royce's 'Is It Love You're After' and TZ's "I Got The Hots For You," Rather than play around with and integrate these sources in a creative or imaginative way, whole sections of these (and other) people's music is liberally lifted wholesale and bolted onto other people's music in a way that does not blend the mix like a fine malt but leaves each component part intact and glaringly obvious as to its source.

Both the Rose Royce and TZ track were funky and danceable entities in their own right and their pillaging and re-assembling makes as much sense as cannibalising two walls for bricks to build a third wall to mark the same boundary. Unlike 'Pump Up The Volume', 'Theme from S'Express' repeats its business ad nauseum, meaning that unless you're getting down to it on the dancefloor then there's precious little to keep you listening when you're off it.

And therein lies the rub, dance music always tends to flap aimlessly like a fish out of water when taken in isolation, and what might sound inspirational as part of a three hour DJ set in a sweaty club loses all context when broken down into individual seven inch singles, the same way as a humerus is pretty ineffectual without the radius, ulna and scapula to support and give it its function.

As an individual single, 'Theme from S'Express' lacks the spark of individuality that made other early house tracks so arresting. It's busy and it's funky, but then again you can say that about almost any James Brown B side and it's construction slips a collar and leash on the genre, ultimately begging the question as to why anybody would want to be messing around with a Frankenstein's monster of a tune when they can have Adam proper.

1988 Pet Shop Boys: Heart

For the fourth single from their 'Actually' album, the Pet Shop Boys took a few steps back from the overloaded bombast of 'It's A Sin' and instead retreated to a more mechanically basic sound with only some Kelly Marie type 'boop boops' for embellishment.

'Heart' comes with the ever forward drive of a mid-eighties New Order but minus the nagging hooks and counter melodies that gave their sound it's third dimension; what you hear really is what you get, and what you get is a song that would sound more at home at the start of the decade rather than its end.
Nothing wrong with that in itself, but it was a little early to go retro and it kind of goes against the rub of what the Pet Shop Boys were supposed to be all 'about'. Rather than pushing any envelopes, 'Heart' sounds like someone experimenting with their first synthesiser on Christmas morning.

As a song too it's pretty standard stuff. 'My heart starts missing a beat' sings Tennant on the chorus, but not in a way that you believe him and neither in a way that satisfactorily resolves the held back tension that the verses create, meaning that you're constantly waiting for something special to happen like a dramatic change of key or an unexpected eruption of counter melody. Waiting, waiting, and then when it never does come the disappointment is palpable.

'Heart' is strictly one way traffic heading to Formulaicville. It's by no means a 'bad' song, it's just the rather dull sound of a barrel being scraped, and dull isn't something you'd normally associate with Tennant and Lowe. They had, and would continue to do, much better than this.

1988 Aswad: Don't Turn Around

I'm feeling a certain sense of deja vu with this release. Like UB40 before them, Aswad started life as a hardcore roots reggae band with a fine line in observational lyrics that detailed the experience of Caribbean immigrants in the UK of the seventies, but their greatest success came in the eighties with a series of cover versions. 'Don't Turn Around' was another Albert Hammond/Diane Warren creation, originally found on a Tina Turner B side. In Turner's hands, it's exactly the sort of overwrought power ballad you'd expect from Warren, but Aswad shake it up with a bright and funky makeover that leans more toward pop than reggae.

And therein lies my main beef with this. Whatever you think of Warren's output, one thing it's always good for is to have the guts sung out of it in pantomime style. If it gets you on your knees with your clenched fists pounding the floor with every syllable then so much the better. 'Don't Turn Around' is a classic example off the peg angst she majored in, an 'I Will Survive' veneer of defiance in the face of a lover who no longer loves that in turn masks true feelings:

"Don't turn around

'Cause you're gonna see my heart breaking
Don't turn around
I don't want you seeing me cry"

Reggae struggles to do heartbreak at the best of times, but Brinsley Forde's incredibly upbeat vocal on this couldn't care less. More like a double bluff, it sounds like he's trying to convince his ex that he really is hurting inside when in truth he can't wait to see the back of her. It inadvertently adds a faux layer to the song that does not sit well with what is in actuality a direct message that's best handled straight. Though they hijacked Aswad's groove, even Ace Of Base were savvy enough to retain the heartbreak, albeit frozen beyond hypothermia, in their icy version.

Yes it's a hit, and a number one at that, but how fondly is it remembered now? 'Don't Turn Around' is too good natured to dislike, but very easy to be disappointed by. By being pound foolish, Aswad won the battle but lost the war with their credibility irrevocably tarnished amongst the fans who'd been there since day one. Going on to perform with Cliff Richard didn't help their cause either, but that, as ever, is another story.

1988 Kylie Minogue: I Should Be So Lucky

In 1988, Kylie 'Charlene' Minogue and Jason 'Scott' Donovan ruled the UK's teatimes in 'The Sullivans as directed by the Farelly Brothers' Australian import 'Neighbours' like the ancient gods of Valhalla made flesh. They were everywhere. Everywhere. And with an salivating audience ranging from excitable pre-schoolers to dotty pensioners fixated on their every move, a trip to a recording studio by our favourite stars was as inevitable as night following day. All of which means 'I Should Be So Lucky' is almost an irrelevance in itself; it's the concept that's important. Not so much the song on the disc but the fact that there's a disc in the first place. Kylie could have sung anything on her debut and it would have mattered not one iota. It's product, and as long as Kylie's name and face was on the cover of a single in the shops then any other consideration was minor.

'I Should Be So Lucky' comes piped down both barrels of the Minogue nose in a flat and strangled staccato whine with a diction that suggests she's reciting the lyrics phonetically. It's a horrible vocal, truly horrible and a more self conscious recording you couldn't imagine. But again, it didn't matter. It was Kylie, and that was enough. What more did you want and what more did you expect?

The Stock, Aitken and Waterman 'hit factory' was in full production by now and, true to form, the relentless music churns factory-like behind her throughout, though it's the one key musical box noise you'd expect to hear from the Chigley biscuit factory rather than any heavy industry producing something substantial and lasting.
And that about sums up the song in total, from the tune to the lyrics ("I should be so lucky. Lucky, lucky, lucky. I should be so lucky in love") to the vocal; it's a flimsy, lacklustre effort that annoys and grates more in it's three minutes than would a primary school assembly singing down 'One Thousand Green Bottles' to zero.

But as SAW apparently knocked this up in forty minutes while Kylie waited in the next room then you can't expect a lot more, and now in summing up I shall show the song the same contempt it showed it's listeners by not bothering to draw my own conclusions and instead quote the 'Efficiency Song' from Chigley that described a typical day in that biscuit factory:

"Nicely precisely and all untouched by hand.

Efficiency our motto, by which we proudly stand.
Cooked, cartoned, checked and crated, labelled and dispatched.
Efficiency efficiency at which we can't be matched".

A far better set of lyrics than SAW managed here and one that nicely sums up everything about 'I Should Be So Lucky' from start to finish.

1988 Tiffany: I Think We're Alone Now

Though largely forgotten now, the late eighties briefly played host to the great Tiffany v Debbie Gibson rivalry where both ploughed similar synth-pop furrows to similarly forgettable effect. It was Britney v Christina ten years early, except neither of them were dressed up as a paedophile's wet dream by people who should know better simply to shift more units.

Indeed, what's most interesting now is the fact that Tiffany is presented for what she is i.e. a plain looking seventeen year old with puppy fat and a proto grunge outfit that made her look like she'd been dressed by her mother (something you could never accuse Britney of). There's no attempt to sex her up into some teen vamp and she's left to fend for herself with only her voice and the song as ammunition. Quite refreshing. Or dated. It depends on your viewpoint.

And how well do they fend? Well, Tiffany's scratchy teenage voice is what it is. Scratchy. She can carry a tune, but she can't do conviction, but that's probably apt given that 'I Think We're Alone Now' is 1960's bubblegum updated to 1980's bubblegum. But not updated by much - the original by Tommy James and the Shondells was a plucked and juddery affair and Tiffany's update simply replaces the guitar and bass lines with the same thing but played on synthesisers.

There's no radical overhaul and the original lines are mirrored faithfully meaning that whilst the song remains the same and retains its poppy bounce, it takes more from the past than it adds to the present and when it's over it induces nothing more than a shoulder shrug of 'what's the point'? And if there's an answer to that question, then Tiffany ain't saying.

1988 Belinda Carlisle: Heaven Is A Place On Earth

Out of all the former Go Go's, you wouldn't have pegged Belinda Carlisle as the 'girl most likely to' in the solo career stakes (that would have been Jane Wiedlin). And yet here we are.

A pop/rock hybrid with added clout, 'Heaven Is A Place on Earth' is aspirational, good time music. A song to soundtrack driving a fast two seat, low slung car along a wide highway at night, roof down and the girl (or boy) of your dreams in the passenger seat. It matters not if all this only exists in your head; with this on the radio, even the M25 on a wet Monday can be transformed into the Pacific Coast Highway in high summer, albeit temporarily. Who cares if it was only January, Belinda brings the sun with her as soon as she starts singing:

"When the night falls down

I wait for you
And you come around

And the world's alive
With the sound of kids

On the street outside

The pauses after each line generate a tense anticipation with Carlisle's vocal always seeming to climb the register to hyper aware euphoria over the low guitar based rumble of the verses even when it isn't, and by the time she gets to the barbed hook chorus she sounds so happy she could burst. Belinda is in love, she wants to tell the world and that's it. There's no irony, no sarcasm, no hidden meanings, no agenda, no metaphor, no depth and nothing bittersweet - as direct as a punch in the face, the song is what it is, and that's the best song about falling in love since XTC's 'Senses Working Overtime'.

"Baby I was afraid before, but I'm not afraid anymore" - you tell them girl.