Monday, 20 October 2014

SWING OUT SISTER: It's Better To Travel




(#346: 23 May 1987, 2 weeks)

Track listing:  Breakout/Twilight World/After Hours/Blue Mood/Surrender/Fooled By A Smile/Communion/It's Not Enough/Theme (from It's Better To Travel)

The year 1987 was and is a difficult one for me to see at all clearly in hindsight, mainly because of the events of the year being either crushingly awful or utterly, completely normal, with tiny joys here and there, though those joys were mainly in the first seven months of the year.  I don't think this colors what I am going to write here that much yet, as nothing as of yet in the spring has happened; nothing more remarkable than actually being able to hold my own at Ryerson, where some people had bailed out for various reasons in the fall (I think if you didn't like it you could leave and get your money back by a certain date, which some did).  I quickly realized that I wasn't exactly cut out to be a journalist per se, but felt the discipline* was good for me, and it helped to sharpen my observational skills, not to mention learning how to drink and swear (from other students, of course).

One thing I was interested in was glamour; that I hoped would be obtainable by making my own Chanelesque multiple necklaces and wearing a lot of white and black clothing, and just by walking through the underground PATH of Toronto every morning and late afternoon, to and from Union Station as I commuted, I hoped some of the gleaming metal and distinguished marble that I walked past would make me feel as if I really did belong at Ryerson, that I was a writer who had something of a future, and so forth and so on.  The music of the time was either in sync with this or against, but Swing Out Sister were poised somewhere in the middle, glamorous, sure, but with something of an older sibling's knowledge of what happiness really is.

The background of Swing Out Sister is that of Andy Connell, member of A Certain Ratio, and Martin Jackson, who had played drums for Magazine; had I known this at the time I would have recognized the group as yet another facet of Manchester's amazing music scene, but I didn't. Corinne Drewery hailed from Nottingham, grew up in Authorpe and used to attend Northern Soul nights in Cleethorpes,  had aspirations to be a fashion designer and went down to That London to study at St. Martins; Connell discovered her at an audition for Working Week - she was rejected, but Connell sensed she had a certain something and Swing Out Sister was born, initially as a side project to A Certain Ratio, only to eclipse it in a couple of years.  Their first single, however, wasn't a hit, and so "Breakout" - written by Corinne in London as the others were up in Manchester - is an anthem from a squat, a combination, as she calls it, of "Thriller" and the clucking of a chicken (cue Jimmy Smith and his Back At The Chicken Shack), and it works. It was written in less than half an hour before the courier from the record company was due to arrive for the demo tape, so it was this or nothing; it is proof that the best songs arrive quickly, and sometimes in sheer desperation.  It is a song of revolution, rebellion, not just for a moment but for life; it is soulcialism in action, and sets the scene for an entire album -yes! - of suave music, elaborate orchestrations that hark back to the days when it was a singer and a huge band, all arranged by Richard Niles** and produced by Paul Staveley O'Duffy, who, having a better singer, songs and general attitude to deal with than Curiosity Killed The Cat, makes each song a little moment, a message I would hear on my Walkman going to and fro, warnings that the seeming glamour of what surrounded me wasn't all I thought it was...

"Twilight World" starts out slowly, even with some caution; the sun is going down, the lights are coming on, but the narrator talks of someone turning away, of silence, of light seeming to disappear altogether.  Someone who keeps away from others, relishing only the loneliness, the aloneness of their existence.  Does this sound familiar?  This is what the narrator describes in a song so vibrant it has a vibes solo, but it's a dead end of solitude that can "fool" the individual who thinks that it's good to shut him/herself away.  The message is clear - you've got to participate in society, and not live in a world where "society" is deemed not to exist...

"After Hours" has got more than a mood of New Order to it - all those odd noises, bird calls and whatnot, caressing the song, another song of someone out their on their own, in the night, in the shadows alone, the world revolving around...or should I say Joy Division?  There is no getting around the jazz element to Swing Out Sister - especially here - but the solitary figure in the night with his cigarette....well, it's not Ian Curtis literally...and the song ends pulling this way and that, bird calls more ominous, awkward...

"Blue Mood" was their first single, the flop one, and it's a club hit, upbeat, with Corinne ordering the listener to "Take a look at yourself!"  (Considering what the color blue means in the UK, no wonder s/he is down.)  But Corinne is pointing to the blue sky and insisting on a new start, on opening the heart of the listener, that the ever-edging-up music sweeps all sadness away, Corinne singing "think it over, won't be long now!"  It won't be long before the (blue) government is gone...It's Better To Travel has walked through the darkness and is now calling for a new day...

..."Surrender" starts with her laugh, as if she just knows that this song won't be interpreted politically either, though how could it be any other way?  "Lying behind a smile."  The main word in the chorus is "revenge" - "You get what you deserve."  Corinne's alto calls out for rebellion and calls on Love itself to defeat Hate; it may take a while, but it will happen, and those guilty will pay, all right.  Guy Barker's solo is the icing on the cake - followed by Corinne's "yeeeeeeeeoOOOOOOOOOOWWW" - this is a satin and silk production of "sweet" revenge, a prayer for things to change...

And yes, the lying of the previous song comes back here, "Fooled By A Smile" - "broken promises take their toll."  This entire album is against the government and the Hooray Henry/Henriettas Sloane Rangers who no doubt heard this in wine bars and had no idea it was judging and blaming each and every one of them.  The elaborate strings and horns comfort those who have suffered, and here in particular Corinne seems to be consoling those who jumped on the Big Bang/Tory ship, only to find that things weren't quite all they were cracked up to be.

"Communion" is very low-key, as if it's being sung to those who are felt left out, who aren't part of the wine bar crowd, nor are the self-styled rugged and lonely individuals.  Those who are on the outside, looking in - "our time has come" she sings, and:  "Broken dreams a seething silence/No one hears/Silent screams/And poisoned lies no one shares."  When life is a crime, she sings, you've got to get together with others to share, to scream those screams, to be heard.  This album comes from a place where the disenfranchised are getting their say - not as dramatically as with Bob Marley, but still, there's a toughness here that works well with the (again) near-Joy Division solemnity of the song.  There is a joy here, a joy of expression, but also the band are not from That London, and this shows as well - the stylish resistance that The Face always thought it represented is vividly alive here, as it hasn't been since...Culture Club?

"It's Not Enough" addresses the government directly, unsatisfied, unhappy, but determined to speak its mind, to get that across with no rancor but some bitterness - they just can't say they are sorry, it's too late to apologize.  The damage has been done, and the only thing is to leave....

Which leads to the final song, an instrumental, a pounding, predatory theme, anticipating chill out and trip-hop all by itself, glancing back to acknowledge Simple Minds, glancing forward to see Air...heavy keyboards make a wall, something like a synthesized zither tickles and creepifies, the sense of anticipation and anxiety goes up and up, as if something overwhelming is about to appear - the music crashes down and then pauses, only to start pounding again, Martin Jackson coming in at last on drums, the music circling endlessly, as if some whole new world is here, is too much to take in at first, some lively, some scary....and it goes away, a vibe tremor, and a warning hum..."To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive" - Robert Louis Stevenson said it, and Swing Out Sister are indeed travelling hopefully to a world without lies, deceit and with love and blue skies, but it's not going to be easy - that's what the "Theme" stands for...

And so that is the glamorous world, a world that seems to run on pearlized this and perfumed that, but beneath it is a world that is imperfect and Swing Out Sister's power is to show that world and hence to build up their case for breaking out of it and breaking free, rebelling against conformity and ruthlessness.  In May of '87 I was completely unaware of a lot of things, walking around and asking questions and rubbing up against those who thought I was a nuisance helped me learn, and this album (and so many from this year***) helped me assimilate, to take in the big changes, to adjust to the relentless clomp-clomp of feet every morning and evening.  Corinne sounded so utterly sure that justice would come, that the lost and truly lonely would have to gather together in order not to lose it and become, well, sour; the complete happiness of "Breakout" was a lifeline at the time, and this album solidifies it as a genuine anthem. 

I didn't know about Joy Division at the time, but hearing it now reminds me that A Certain Ratio were also a Factory band and the darkness of the album stems from that post-punk time, a time that has moved forward to ACT's "Snobbery and Decay" (ZTT's last will and testament) and the return of ABC with Alphabet City.  For three indie musicians to get together, get signed to a major label and then take over with style and substance is not a new story (I'm thinking of Scritti Politti here) but the partnership of Connell and Drewery continues to this day, a bit less political now and more purely romantic, but still elegant and uplifting.  But in 1987 to be just those things was, as they knew, not enough; there had to be some grounding under the rhinestones and silk, some place where style and action could meet, inspiration, not just aspiration, could happen.  And so I went to Ryerson and listened and absorbed, consciously and unconsciously, a kind of hip defiance.  And while I so longed to be a Chanel muse, I was beginning to understand that there was more to life than perfume and earrings and the right "look."

A lot more.

Next up:  To make up for the fact I never got to see them in '84....


*One of the reasons students may have dropped out or transferred was due to the high expectations put on them for writing.  Assignments had due dates and a date stamp machine was to be used to prove you were on time - if you weren't on time, you failed the assignment.  You also failed the assignment if you got anyone's name wrong, or just couldn't write very well.  Our work was judged fairly and I can't say that I got great grades, hardly anyone did; we were very much raw recruits, being molded for a purpose.  Reporting had to be done between other classes, pounded out on typewriters so big and heavy you could do damage with them (if you could pick one up, that is) on special paper, multi-layered and -colored.  The assignments were tough sometimes, but doable, and my writing was judged fairly as being pretty bad, but not utterly hopeless.

**A lovely poem about the band is included in the sleevenotes - Niles wrote it, winning me over with a mention of Corinne's "clunky shoes."  His wife Tessa is the female voice on "Date Stamp" on The Lexicon Of Love.  You can see how New Pop hasn't disappeared, but is taking on a new guise...

***Warehouse:  Songs and Stories and Solitude Standing come to mind, neither really soulcialist but then not all that far away, either...

Friday, 17 October 2014

CURIOSITY KILLED THE CAT: Keep Your Distance





(#345: 9 May 1987, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Misfit/Down To Earth/Free/Know What You Know/Curiosity Killed The Cat/Ordinary Day/Mile High/Red Lights/Shallow Memory

Not just of its time, but utterly of its place; I knew something of Fulham wine bars in 1987 and this I heard coming out of all of them. It’s a wonder this bunch of amiable, if confused, Sloanies – coming variously from Earl’s Court, Sunbury-on-Thames, Strawberry Hill and Putney – were ever seriously touted as the new Duran Duran. Theirs is depressingly grown-up music, ideal fodder to make the twenty-something Cameron and Johnson feel they were modern, without all the awkward political stuff (don’t tell me they were really digging The World Won’t Listen or The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death). The problem is not that Curiosity’s music was bad – it isn’t (although “Down To Earth” is by far their best song) – but it’s not exactly earth-moving or life-changing either. It squats in the middle of the Broadway like a sulky sausage. Ben VP’s vocals are either too timid or too overstretched, various backing singers and eminent British jazz musicians read the flyshit and get their mortgages paid off, and – as was the regrettable norm of mid-eighties mainstream British AoR pretending to be pop – his lyrics, whether they deal with school bullies (“Shallow Memory” is no “Rusholme Ruffians”) or sententious finger-wagging (eponymous band song), are too pretentiously unfocused to make us feel or believe anything. Sly and Robbie pop up to produce “Free” and no doubt chuckled to themselves as Ben “I’m Independent, Are You?” VP droned “If we can’t be free/Then we don’t wants (sic) to be we” but simply make me wish I were writing about Rhythm Killers instead. And in “Red Lights,” the backward fisherman’s cap-wearing vocalist intones the following classic line: “The touch of your hand gives me the command to donate.” To donate what, Ben? Your left kidney?

Thursday, 16 October 2014

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Now That's What I Call Music 9





(#344: 5 April 1987, 5 weeks)

Track listing: Reet Petite (Jackie Wilson)/Live It Up (Mental As Anything)/The Right Thing (Simply Red)/Sometimes (Erasure)/C’est La Vie (Robbie Nevil)/You Sexy Thing (Ben Liebrand Remix) (Hot Chocolate)/It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way (The Blow Monkeys)/Caravan Of Love (The Housemartins)/Everything I Own (Boy George)/Rat In Mi Kitchen (UB40)/Big Fun (The Gap Band)/Stay Out Of My Life (Five Star)/Heartache (Pepsi & Shirlie)/Trick Of The Night (Bananarama)/Take My Breath Away (Berlin)/The Great Pretender (Freddie Mercury)/Stand By Me (Ben E King)/Down To Earth (Curiosity Killed The Cat)/So Cold The Night (Communards)/Jack Your Body (Steve “Silk” Hurley)/I Love My Radio (Midnight Radio) (Taffy)/Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever (Nick Kamen)/Manhattan Skyline (a-Ha)/Sonic Boom Boy (Westworld)/Livin’ On A Prayer (Bon Jovi)/Land Of Confusion (Genesis)/The Final Countdown (Europe)/Over The Hills And Far Away (Gary Moore)/Cross That Bridge (The Ward Brothers)/Hymn To Her (Pretenders)

I wondered about that cover for a while. It looked a bit empty, somewhat frayed, compared with the usual relative sophistication of Now covers. What did those red edges mean – a menu? An old diary? Then I looked up the TV ad – with Kid Jensen’s excitable promise of “your own personal hits file” – and realised that it was supposed to represent that most 1987 of shining artefacts, the Filofax. Oh, the instant nostalgia! Up there with triple-decker sandwich-sized mobile ‘phones, that was. You can probably still get them out of Smythson’s – a steal at only £900 (per page).

Anyway, to the double album itself, which I note boasts only “30 TOP CHART HITS,” down from the thirty-two offered on the previous two volumes. I’m not sure why this was – did Now 9 come out too early, only three months after its predecessor? Or, given the considerable input of WEA and CBS into what went on it, perhaps it was the problem of having to piggyback a Hits 5½ mini-compilation. Or maybe it had something to do with sound reproduction issues.

Whatever the reason, we are now firmly into 1987 – or possibly not so firmly, since a good proportion of these thirty songs were actually hits towards the end of 1986, and indeed some stretch much further back than that, whether reissues or cover versions. So Now 9 does not put me in mind of the rapidly-changing and always exciting 1987 that I remember experiencing, but rather puts me in mind of corporate or industry anxiety. I had hoped that the pained struggle between old and new would have resolved by this point, but in fact this seems to have been a trademark of the Now series; ever more desperate attempts to cling to the past, to tried and tested ways of doing things and tried and tested people to do them. Despite a track listing which spans some three decades – from “Reet Petite” to “Jack Your Body” – the overriding feeling is one of doubt, and perhaps also some fear; several of the songs refer, directly or indirectly, to the gathering, dark cloud that in retrospect would come to dominate the time; the same one to which Leonard Cohen, eighteen months later, would remark that “a naked man and woman are now a shining artefact of the past.”

Still, it does include a remarkable total of seven number ones.

Jackie Wilson

Demolishing "Space Oddity"'s six-year record, Jackie Wilson's "Reet Petite" unexpectedly became the Christmas number one single of 1986, over twenty-nine years after it had originally made the top ten. In the interim it had drifted out of circulation, become something of a prized soulboy rarity. A bootleg 45 reissue was even given the NME's Single Of The Week award in late 1982 by the egregious Gavin Martin, who swiftly used the opportunity to decry plastic, passionless cocktail New Pop in favour of Sweat and Soul and Passion. So its surprise late triumph could be counted a victory for the Real Soul brigade, although the circumstances of its success could likewise be considered a defeat.

"Reet Petite," Wilson’s first solo hit after leaving the Dominoes, is one of the cornerstone black pop records; the first successful song written by the young Berry Gordy, it laid the foundations for Motown and is thus utterly crucial. As a record, too, it pops and squeals with a force which seems to overcome Dick Jacobs' deliberately old-fashioned big band arrangement; not only do Wilson's multiple "ooh"s, "ah"s and "oo-wee"s reach deep into the backwoods of black music history - recalling the jump bands of the '30s and '40s - but also set out the ground for both James Brown and Michael Jackson, and maybe even the erasure of "meaning" which comes about so remarkably in the record which replaced it at number one, and appears later in this compilation.

While there is a certain degree of relish in the spectacle of snobbish soulboys having their "secret" blown wide open, the story behind "Reet Petite"'s renewed success is depressing. By 1986 Wilson had been two years gone, following nine years in a coma occasioned by a heart attack, onstage as part of a Dick Clark oldies revue, in which he injured his head so severely while falling that he also sustained near-irretrievable brain damage. There were unworthy tussles over wills and bills; indeed Wilson's medical bills were eventually met and paid for by Michael Jackson, a frequent visitor to his bedside. Able to communicate only by infinitesimal movements of his eyelids, Wilson's last years were wretched, and his passing perhaps a merciful release.

The record’s renewed, posthumous popularity came about as a result of a (by 1986 standards) hi-tech video made - irony of ironies - by the same team responsible for the video to "Happy Hour" by the Housemartins. It was aired regularly on children's television and became a cult favourite. But the video itself - featuring stop-motion plasticine puppets of Wilson and others - was reasonably criticised for tastelessness and even necrophilia (there are shots where Wilson's head rolls off his neck and along his arms). Not that this worried the kids who were taken by what they assumed to be a wacky children's novelty song; the record was duly reissued and became that season's big seller. And while it did perform the necessary function of introducing Wilson's music to a new audience who might otherwise never have heard of it, the video still leaves a rather nasty taste in the spectator’s mouth. Yes, "Reet Petite" deserved to be a number one – but, to echo a forthcoming question, did it have to be this way?

Mental As Anything

Even TOTP – in the 12 March episode sampled at length on the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu’s aptly-titled album 1987 – What The Fuck’s Going On? – railed (albeit politely) against the overwhelming presence of “old songs” in the Top 40. But even the “new” songs weren’t that new; “Live It Up” had been around since 1985 and only made the top three on account of its inclusion in Paul Hogan’s first Crocodile Dundee movie. They were a Sydney bar band and the song depicts a rather creepy guy attempting to cheer/chat up someone in a “pickup joint.” The arrangement and delivery suggested that for some people 1969 would always be the year of Vanity Fare and Joe Dolan. As for the group’s name, as the late John Peel remarked more than once: “Anyone who tells you they’re mad, isn’t.”

Simply Red, Hot Chocolate and Sex

Having become quite famous by 1987, Mick Hucknall evidently decided: enough of the restraint, I’m a ladies’ man and I’m going to prove it. It is interesting how Simply Red started having hits around the time Hot Chocolate stopped having them, since they address similar issues in very different ways. No Errol-style desperate beating around the bush for Mick, though; “The Right Thing” is an attempt at sex with a conscience, and for all the indirect debt it owes to Tim Buckley’s “Get On Top,” and despite Hucknall’s occasional stuffed shirtness (“I told you to stop, ‘You're sleeping out a lot’/You told me get lost, where's your understanding?”), he just wants to do the right thing, which in 1987 meant the safe thing. There was this gathering, dark cloud at the time.

Erasure

Marking, I believe, the first appearance by anything on the Mute label on a Now compilation – Depeche Mode held out until Now 17 (“Enjoy The Silence”) – and indeed the first appearance of a duo who will soon become Then Play Long regulars, “Sometimes” was introduced on TOTP with words that were something like the following: “You know what’s been happening with Alison Moyet since Yazoo split, but you might be wondering what Vince Clarke’s been up to. Well, here he is…” Three-year continuity of memory! You wouldn’t get that now (cue baffled pop fans with goldfish-level memories struggling to remember anybody who had a hit in 2011 who isn’t in TMZ regularly).

Actually, everybody was glad to see Vince – and Andy Bell – back on the scene and high in the charts (“Sometimes” peaked at number two, Mute’s biggest hit since “Only You” four-and-a-half years earlier) and “Sometimes” is musically a terrific and seemingly effortless pop record; shards of inevitable melody glide, at times over an unexpectedly chunky guitar riff with shades of “Everything’s Gone Green,” with more than a hint of melancholy at its centre, a feeling heightened by Guy Barker’s trumpet solo (Barker was clearly the go-to musician for melancholy and/or telling trumpet solos in mid-eighties Britpop).

This is borne out by the song’s lyrics, which initially seem quite joyful with their talk of falls in ecstasy, and warming each other in the night. But this scenario is not as idyllic as it might seem: “Ooh, sometimes, the pain is harder than the truth inside” goes the chorus, followed by “It’s the broken heart that decides.” Like the amplified return of “You Sexy Thing,” you get the feeling that this underlines the end of an era, that nothing is going to be the same after this, that everybody is going to have to be careful and cautious. And that there will be much hatred and prejudice to be borne until people grow up.

Robbie Nevil

“C’est La Vie” too is a cover version – the original appears on gospel singer Beau Williams’ 1985 album Bodacious! – and the overall impression with Nevil’s version is Junior Giscombe getting down with a robot Silver Convention (“THAT’S LIFE!” shouts the chorus, rather than the “THAT’S RIGHT!” of “Get Up And Boogie”). Other than that this might as well be updated electro Bob Seger; the singer has a dead-end job, can’t get no satisfaction and wonders what’s the bloody point of it all, only to realise that that’s just the fucking way it is. It is nowhere near enough, of course, but Nevil, and his strangely harmonically fugitive keyboard lines, convinced enough early 1987 floating voters to make it a top three hit here (in the States, it was what some call a “Terrific Two”).

The Blow Monkeys

I’ve already mentioned soulcialism once, and it was all over the place in 1987 (as were, ahem, “sonic theft merchants,” but more about the latter later). A descendent of New Pop, the purpose was to imbue pop-soul music with left-wing political lyrics, and some did it better than others, notably its Scottish practitioners – although Dr Robert grew up in Australia, he actually comes from Haddington, about twenty miles east of Edinburgh.

“It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way” was the group’s biggest hit, from the excellent album She Was Only A Grocer’s Daughter which probably would have done much better than it did – it peaked at #20 – had state radio of the period not been so scared away by it. But there was no resisting one of the most elegant uses of the Go-Go rhythm in pop, nor Dr Robert’s Bolan-lives! croon in which he metaphorically discusses the state of the nation and tries to reassure the song’s subject that what “we”’ve got just isn’t good enough, and that she (or he?) needs to “ask for more.” His “Well, I’ve just about had enough of the sunshine, HEY!” is one of the most heartfelt rejections of Thatcherism in eighties pop, knowing as it does what too much “sunshine” can do. Great little nod to Elvis at the end of the song, too.

The Housemartins

The original version of "Caravan Of Love" was released in 1985; written and performed by Isley, Jasper, Isley - effectively the next generation of Isley Brothers - it is an affecting update on the "People Get Ready" template; a call to unite which could easily double as a call to arms ("It's time to stand up and fight"). Although it doesn't surpass the exacting standards set by the Impressions song (and doesn't "People Get Ready" bear the sweetest smile of any loaded gun in pop? Even Lennon had to bow down before Mayfield's genius - the Christmas carol glockenspiel, the ethereal, benign harmonies all concealing instructions for uprising and revolution), "Caravan Of Love" again spoke for the dispossessed of the Thatcher/Reagan era, those who either wouldn't join in or had been deliberately left out of the party.

In a Britain which, in late 1986, was as divided and defeated as ever following the aftermath of the miners' and steelworkers' routs, where the nation's family silver was routinely being auctioned off to the highest bidder (that winter's "tell Sid" British Gas privatisation campaign was a particularly loathsome example of free market brutalism masquerading as comfy homeliness), it is likewise easy to understand what a song like "Caravan Of Love," with its entreaties to protect and rebuild "The place in which we were born/So neglected and torn apart," would mean to whatever was left of the community. In Britain, the hit version - and the first true acappella number one - came from the Housemartins, the nearest thing 1986 had to a people's band; though essentially indie, they weren't quite pop, not exactly soul and nowhere near folk.

As with Larkin, they were content to remain in Hull, handily just out of reach of the metropolis, the kind of corner into which all true poets must crawl sooner or later - the title of their debut album, London 0 Hull 4, was a deliberate act of protectionism and pride, and for the 1987 Brit awards they deliberately stayed in Hull to accept their award by video rather than venture down to the capital, an act which caused much malice on the part of Radio 1 controllers (every DJ, as I recall, was compelled to read out the same statement about what a disgrace it was that the Housemartins didn’t attend the Brits when PAUL SIMON HIMSELF had attended in person. No, eighties Radio 1, you were the disgrace, as we now know).

"Caravan Of Love" was their "winter warmer" of a Christmas offering; though the harmonies are necessarily simplified from the original, it is finely sung, and Paul Heaton's cracked lead vocal - part pleading, part threatening - is an ideal conduit for the message being delivered. It was their most popular single, and the only mutterings of discontent came from the music press, who accused UK radio of inherent racism for playing the Housemartins cover but not the Isley, Jasper, Isley original (and they may have had a point). By the most bemusing of ironies, its intended status as 1986's Christmas number one was to be denied by a rearguard action from that precise direction, resulting in one of the most bizarre and problematic of all Christmas number ones. That particular story has already been discussed above.

Boy George

Halfway through side two of the abovementioned 1987 - What The Fuck's Going On?, in between "The Queen And I" and "All You Need Is Love," is a lengthy sequence featuring "highlights" from one evening's edition of Top Of The Pops (Thursday 12 March to be precise), cut up as impatience allowed, with occasional channel-switching segments from Channel 4 News, the golf on BBC2 and adverts on ITV ("More of this could mean less of THIS!"). Hosted by Steve Wright and the late Mike "Snowy Smithy" Smith - the latter the cousin of the NME's Gavin "Half An Hour Of Aretha Every Morning To Teach Yourself Dignity" Martin - it demonstrates just how lamentable the Top 40 of the period looked, and also the degree of seriousness with which artists treated TOTP at the time insofar as nearly every featured record is on video.

"Nearly 25% of the chart is comprised of old songs for the first time ever," muses Snowy Smithy mournfully, as he runs through, among other sub-delights, Nick Kamen murdering "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever" (see below), "the very subtle Freddie Mercury" having a go at "The Great Pretender" (ditto) and the life-extinguishing pettiness of the phraseology employed throughout - "Look! A new song! "Don't Need A Gun" by Billy Idol is a chart entry at 38!" (no sentient human being has ever used the term “chart entry.” Nobody has ever released a compilation entitled Greatest Chart Entries), "Let's have some Top 40 Breakers (i.e. snatches of videos they don't have time to play in full)!" The only vague sign of life is "Fight For Your Right To Party," the video for which is prefaced by such side-splitting remarks as "This is not a BBC Board of Governors Meeting...Nor is it one of Peter Powell's better-known gigs."

As the top ten is counted down, Smith announces "Here come the old songs" (bypassing Mental As Anything's two-year-old Australian hit "Live It Up" at number five). There's Freddie and his Platters platter at number four, Jackie Wilson's "I Get The Sweetest Feeling" at three, "Stand By Me" (see below) down to number two...

"...and at number one, back on Top Of The Pops for the first time since 1985 (cue huge cheers from the studio audience, presumably relieved that one of the artists has actually turned up to perform their hit, despite the fact that the last time this artist appeared in the TOTP studio had been in 1984), it's BOY GEORGE!" Cue a quick cut to Bill Drummond roaring "Fuck that! Let's have the JAMMs!"

The sequence's deliberate blankness speaks for itself; this represented everything Drummond and Cauty were (up) against, and just over a year later the JAMMs would indeed be top of the pops with their carefully crafted and cunning plan. Possibly it's not fair on poor, benighted Boy George, for his glossy Xerox of Ken Boothe's 1974 chart-topper clearly reached number one on the public sympathy vote. Following the relative failure of the last Culture Club album, 1986's From Luxury To Heartache, George had deteriorated badly, nearly losing his life to heroin, shrunken to a virtual skeleton, at one stage reportedly given a fortnight to live. In addition, keyboardist Michael Rudetski, who played on that album as well as several other dance hits of the period - including "Male Stripper" by Man II Man and Man Parrish, number nine in the chart the week "Everything I Own" went to the top - was found dead of a heroin overdose in George's house.

So the meaning behind his interpreting "Everything I Own" - "I would give everything I own/Just to have you back again" - was transparent. The record is otherwise utterly unremarkable apart from the fact that George's voice sounds shot to pieces; hoarse, slightly desperate. The public were willing to forgive and embrace him again, at least temporarily; the Sold album followed later that year, a scabrous, bitchy and frequently very funny record, and its title track, released as a single, remains underrated, but neither did much more than scrape the Top 30. But George has survived, as a highly-respected DJ, with the occasional film theme or Culture Club reunion or bizarre out-there pop nugget ("Generations Of Love," "Everything Starts With An E," the latter put together with fellow DJ and one-time Haysi Fantayzee rival Jeremy Healy) or spell of community cleansing; at the moment it will be interesting to see whether he does end up becoming pop's Quentin Crisp.

UB40

Well, you can believe that this song – one of the few UB40 hits to be sung by Astro rather than Ali Campbell – was actually inspired by Ali moving into a new house only to find rats running around it. But these lyrics – “When you open your mouth, you don’t talk, you shout,” “When you out on the street you practise lies and deceit,” and, most starkly, “If I had my way, if I had my say/I’d like to see you hang” – really do leave no doubt who the “rat” really is. A year before the last song on Viva Hate, too. It doesn’t get played much, or at all, on oldies radio.

The Gap Band

Don’t think we’ve come across Tulsa’s finest funk band on TPL before but “Big Fun” was their biggest and last (non-reissued/remixed) UK hit single. There’s not much to it beyond Charlie Wilson’s tremendous, ecstatic vocal performance – take me to church indeed – Go-Go timbales and a killer synth bassline which reminds me of the Human League, but there doesn’t need to be. This record’s least complicated and most entertaining tune.

Five Star, Curiosity Killed The Cat and Genesis


Pepsi & Shirlie

A small reminder that once Wham! were considered as a quartet rather than a duo – so, what happened to the other two? They were briefly resurgent in 1987, and “Heartache” – which, irony of ironies, was kept off number one only by “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” – is far bolder a production (the record was co-produced by Phil Fearon) and far brighter (and darker) a performance than the likes of Five Star were able to achieve. You can even hear George ah-ah-ahh’ing in the background of the choruses. Shirlie is now married to Martin Kemp, and George still comes round to their place for Christmas dinner. That’s really sweet!

Bananarama

Not their biggest hit, and entirely unplayed on oldies radio, but it stems from the same well of darkness as “Cheers Then” and “Rough Justice.” Effectively the trio’s last record with the Swain and Jolley team, “Trick Of The Night” is the old story of running off to the big city only to end up as a rentboy, and, though written by Swain and Jolley, may have been based on someone the group knew in real life. The chorus has harmonies reminiscent of Microdisney, the vocal layering is one of the most complex outside peak period Beach Boys, and this is a Bananarama record which deserves re-evaluation.

Berlin

With Top Gun, American cinema finally located its equivalent to Leni Riefenstahl. There is such finely-angled, cold beauty to the monoliths of technology which are the film's real stars that it's scarcely surprising that director Tony Scott didn't find much use for its human components. Even at a human - or more precisely, an ahuman - level the film is not much more than a homoerotic paean to machines and the power and destruction that they can wield. What use has Top Gun for its women? Did Kelly McGillis' career ever really recover from playing fourth fiddle to Tom Cruise, his rookie buddy and several dozen magnetically exploding rods of harsh metal?

As a film it is a foolish, smug, alienating endeavour so utterly in love with the cold rationalism of technology in and of itself that it imagines "beauty" is enough. It is directed by the kind of mindset which locates beauty in the bodies purposely falling to their deaths from the Twin Towers, preferring to be broken in death than incinerated - and in the malabsorbed wargames which lead to such disasters in the first place.

And yet its "love theme" is one of the great number ones, with a futurism which could properly define awe. It is hardly surprising that one of the people behind "Take My Breath Away" was Giorgio Moroder, the electronic musician who above all others understands not to discard the human heart at the machine's centre, and so there is a very natural grace about the huge, rising bass line which emerges like the gleaming corner of the apex of the newly-built Canary Wharf into the unwary lower right eye of the helicopter passenger. It stuns but does not flatten. The musical model is the OMD of "Stanlow" and "Sealand," odes to semi-abandoned mountain ranges of technology marooned somewhere in a vanishing sea, as though a torch had newly been shone upon its remoter corners, with perhaps a nod to H20's 1983 Top 20 hit "I Dream To Sleep."

Its power, however, is centred in the extraordinary vocal performance of Terri Nunn, who negotiates Tom Whitlock's rather arcane lyric ("Watching every motion/In my foolish lover's game/On this endless ocean") as though it's the most important message on Earth, with the tonal purity of Olivia Newton-John ("If only for today, I am unafraid") and also a desperate urgency when required ("When the mirror crashed, I called you!"), finally dovetailing into her own harmony as the song moves up a key for the final verse, where happy closure is attained; there is blissful wonder in Nunn's last "Watching in slow motion/As you turn my way and say" before sighing "Take my breath away, my love" into herself, in that it is a request rather than an observation; her voice climbs higher to little death heaven as the song disappears into the blue vapour. It is a shame that Nunn's voice has not been put to the extensive use it deserves - her equally extraordinary contribution to the Sisters of Mercy 1993 hit "Under The Gun" is the only other example which immediately springs to mind - but at least Moroder knew how to find the humanity which Top Gun, as a film, seemed to find something of an inconvenience.

Freddie Mercury

Now, if you look at the track listing for the second of these records, which begins with this, and if you know your pop history, you’ll see the cunning little conceptual trick or circle that Ashley Abram managed to complete.

More of that later, but for now, here is extravagant, outrageous, over the top Freddie Mercury finding solace in a song that was a hit in his fifties childhood. This doesn’t get played much these days either, and perhaps there are reasons for that, not the least that it is an uncomfortable listen. Mercury’s version is not as funny as Stan Freberg’s, nor as penetrating of the song’s fibres as Lester Bowie’s, but is maybe the most poignant reading. “Laughing and gay like a clown,” he sings with a straight face, confessing that there are things about him that you don’t – yet – know.

It is estimated that he knew for certain that he was unwell around Easter of 1987 – i.e. after “The Great Pretender” had been a hit. But in his delivery there is some awareness that he knows that there may not be that much time left, and so the long instrumental coda, reminiscent in some ways of the “Peg Of My Heart” theme to The Singing Detective, is heartbreaking, like he had already left the building.

Ben E King

"Stand By Me" was a sprinter compared with "Reet Petite," taking just under twenty-six years from its initial chart appearance to reach number one. Its revival was not occasioned by the Rob Reiner film, which wasn't released in Britain until the summer of 1987, but by the Levi's 501 TV ad campaign which commercially was one of the most successful ever. Beginning in late 1985 with an "authentic"-looking series of '50s/pre-Beatles '60s scenarios of vintage Americana (mostly filmed in Borehamwood), the soundtrack to Nick Kamen removing his clothing in the steamy launderette, or immersing his shrink-to-fit jeans in the bath, was similarly unimpeachable Authentic Soul Classics. The effects were immediate; in 1986 "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" returned to the top ten, swiftly followed by "Wonderful World," a bigger British hit than Sam Cooke ever achieved in his lifetime.

The next brace of commercials were launched in early 1987; for "Stand By Me" there was a queue for a club, admission gained only by the Authentic red tag on the protagonist's 501s, while for Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves A Woman" we had a "poignant" portrait of a departing GI and his lover at the bus terminal. The going-away present? Why, a pair of 501s.

This all tied in with the still ridiculous residue of the 1982 Hard Times/ripped jeans non-craze, with Robert Elms on The Tube cheerfully deriding "Northern scum" (forgetting that the programme was being recorded in Newcastle; he required a police escort to get back to the airport) for not wearing limited edition super-expensive 501s with original red stitches. Once again, everything had to be Real and Gritty. But the campaign worked better than ever before; a month after the adverts premiered on British TV, "Stand By Me" and "When A Man Loves A Woman" occupied the top two slots in the singles chart, the latter thereby doubling its original 1966 performance.

In view of the legion of cover versions and reissues prevalent in the lists of the time, it can hardly be viewed as a healthy situation where the two most popular records come from the previous generation, and there was a kneejerk anti-futurism at work here crying out for someone to come and blow it apart.

None of this, of course, is the fault of Ben E King nor of Leiber and Stoller, who (with some help from Carole King and the singer himself) wrote "Stand By Me." It is indisputably one of the great pop singles, and there may have been an anxiety to right wrongs, since in 1961 it only peaked at #27 in Britain, and in the interim had become better known in the form of Lennon's Spector-produced 1975 cover. As a record it is practically bipolar in nature, for despite the hopeful sunrise strings and backing vocals, which appear over the tenements like a welcome dash of early morning spring, the song appears to be about imminent apocalypse with its imagery of "the land is dark/And the moon is the only light we'll see" and its dread-laden visions of the sky tumbling and falling and the mountains crumbling into the sea. This is a gesture of indivisible faith - maybe not that far away from the fear-filled bunker of Neon Bible, of which latter more later this week in the other place - a shield against lament and fear in a world which is swiftly turning into blood. U2 caught something of that feeling when they cited the song in "The Unforgettable Fire" - also the closest they ever got to an Associates tribute - and thus the original sits uneasily as a signifier of reproduction antique America in another land, increasingly unhappy with itself.

Communards

This was an unnerving number eight hit for a chilly and uninviting winter. Somerville is in his flat, and he regularly watches the guy in the flat across the way from him undress. He is hopelessly in love with him. The music is Wilson, Keppel and Betty lite with a Roy Castle-ish tap-dancing interlude. His falsetto burns like a laser of forgotten cigarette ash. It still scares the shit out of me.

JACK YOUR BODY

I had a really bad bout of the ‘flu in January 1987. That was a month of intense winter cold and deep drifts of snow, some of which I unwisely attempted to shovel away from our driveway one afternoon. Combined with an equally inadvisable dietary intake, I plunged into ten days of debilitating fever and inertia, and as the winter refused to let up my weight plunged to beneath the nine stone mark (halycon days, perhaps, from that perspective alone). To cheer myself up I played some of the hardest, most brutalist music I could find on my shelves - the Beastie Boys' then hot-off-the-presses Licensed To Ill, Sly's There's A Riot Goin' On, Ayler's Village Concerts, PiL's Metal Box (in the original 12" canister, to make extracting and playing the records even more difficult)...and Volume One of the compilation series The House Sound Of Chicago.

That latter might not fit with the rest of the unforgiving fare, but it did provide a crucial balancing lightness. Its lead track - side one, track one - was the original, deliciously minimalist 12" mix of "Jack Your Body," and there is a pungent symmetry about its succeeding "Reet Petite" to become 1987's first number one single; the two records placed side-to-side could usefully bookend an entire history of post-war black pop.

There is no doubt that "Jack Your Body," the first House number one, is a landmark single which forms a crucial bend in the pop river. It is now over six years since I began this exercise, and time-wise we are now about halfway through the story as it stands so far - although with the increased rapid turnover of number ones in later years, the second half may take somewhat longer to relate than the first - as far away from "Release Me" as from "Put Your Hands Up For Detroit," but can we imagine any of the latter-day dance smashes happening without the example of "Jack Your Body" to open the floodgates? This represented the exact point where many people decided to get off the bus; Radio 1's Peter Powell, for example, remarked with specific relation to "Jack Your Body" that he could no longer understand modern pop music, and eventually (in September 1988) retired from being a DJ - if only others had been honest enough to follow his example!

But "Jack Your Body" also stands for the logical cumulation of several coalescing trends in dance music which had been apparent for some years. Deriving its name from the Warehouse club in Chicago, House music began its inexorable rise out of its immediate locality throughout 1984 and 1985. Inspired in equal parts by the deconstructing tendencies of pioneering hip hop DJs like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash (though instead of "scratching" in samples from other records, elements would be digitally sculpted into the House DJ mix), tendencies in electronic music from Munich and Sheffield alike (though the surprising New Pop influences would initially be more apparent in the parallel Detroit Techno movement quietly brewing at the same time, with Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and others) and electrofunk itself, taking as its starting point the crucial likes of D-Train, Sharon Redd and Shannon, House focused in more and more narrowly on the beats themselves, the feeling and mood supersediing notions of "song" in importance. The silences between beats became as important as the beats themselves, but there was still room for considerable fluidity and flexibility - it was still a broad church which could encompass the stark minimalism of Phuture's 14-minute-long "Acid Trax," the lush soulfulness of JM Silk's "Music Is The Key," the unworldly lushness of Mr Fingers' "Can You Feel It."

Starting in the clubs of Scotland and the North of England (particularly Fire Island in Edinburgh) and slowly spreading down South (for the soft Southerners were slow to catch on, besotted as they were by the Guts and Realism of Rare Groove) - it helped that most dancers saw it as a natural extension of Hi-NRG - House began to catch on in Britain; shops like 23rd Precinct in Glasgow were the initial stopping point for those extraordinary, mysterious, anonymous 12-inch imports like Strafe's "Set It Off" (a transitional eruption from Brooklyn) and Farley "Jackmaster" Funk's minimalist Isaac Hayes reshaping, "Love Can't Turn Around" which latter, nearly a year after its initial appearance in the import racks, crossed over to the national top ten.

Again, "Love Can't Turn Around" has to be understood in its ruthlessly functional original mix, but its popularity was in great part down to the amazing vocal performance of Darryl Pandy - if you can find the 12" vocal remix (it’s on Now Dance ’86) you can see House becoming maximalist, with Pandy's great, swooping arpeggios worthy of Buckley on Starsailor - a characteristic which slightly nullified the notion of House as faceless, functional dance music! There were other pointers to what was going to happen in the charts of the period - think of Colonel Abrams' "Trapped" or even "Axel F" by Moroder protege Harold Faltermeyer, which latter the pop mix of "Jack Your Body" most closely resembles.

"Jack Your Body" itself is as minimalist as pop had dared to become this side of Joe Meek and Lee Perry; a flat but springy beat, keyboard strokes and basslines out of Kraftwerk, and the total absence of a centre in its determinedly Baudrillardian environment - everything is suggested, must be absorbed in the act of dancing (and coincidental or otherwise ingestion of appropriate chemicals). The voice, as such, repeats the title over and over, lapping in on itself, mechanically generated, a simulacrum of a human being - and that is essentially all that there is to the record. Its influence on the subsequent generation of dance-dominant charts is incalculable and its effect was immediate; soon House music, in both its original form, its typically British Acieed mutation and the inevitable (if good) pop cash-ins, would become an indispensable part of the pop landscape. It was not the entire landscape in itself - as we are already seeing, 1987 was something of a stylistic grab-bag where literally anything went (and quite often did). But "Jack Your Body" - especially in its 33-minute multi-mix 12", which nearly provoked Gallup to list the record in the album chart on account of its length - is the beginning of a new time, and much of what is to follow has to be viewed in its immense and far-reaching light. On the other hand, its structure takes us back to the fifties and what, in both rhythm and words, what rock ‘n’ roll was always supposed to be about in the first place.

Taffy

Taffy was actually New Yorker Katherine Quaye, but her Eurohits were all conceived and recorded in Italy. “I Love My Radio,” one of the last gasps of Italodisco before mutating into Italohouse, took its time to cross over, having been released in 1985 (as was, originally, “Jack Your Body”) and filled dancefloors in Scotland and the North of England. Much played, for the same reasons that DJs and programme controllers will jump on any record that mentions “radio,” Quaye performs with a soup├žon of regret (“Your voice reminds me/Across my mind a thousand times/In my mind, confusion”) and an unquenchable joie de vivre slightly reminiscent of the Belle Stars.

Nick Kamen

Levi Stubbs would have been in tears of laughter if he’d heard what Kamen had done to his song, i.e. watered it down to anaemic nothingness. As a singer, Kamen was a very successful model. But his woeful “darlin’ darlin’”s remind us that for some consumers, looks were all that mattered. In that respect, he is the unwitting harbinger of the Cowell inferno to come.

Meanwhile, Sean Penn wonders whether this was all such a good idea.

a-Ha

They are at the airport, saying goodbye, and he can’t stand it (“How can you say that I didn’t try?”). So winsome acoustic waltz battles with screaming hard rock in the “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” vein – it was the old Abbey Road/”Question” trick of marrying two separate but incomplete songs. But as Morten Harket’s outward ice fights with his inner fire, you could interpret “Manhattan Skyline” as signifying the split between old and new; the new must come through, but the old is fighting tooth and nail to cling on.

Westworld

Briefly hailed as the next Sigue Sigue Sputnik – the group was put together by former Generation X guitarist Bob “Derwood” Andrews – “Sonic Boom Boy” was their only real moment. Straightforward electro-punk pop which came, left its mark and disappeared again. I still like its daft, if doomed, optimism, and American singer Elizabeth Westwood’s so-WHAT delivery; although she is not herself a blonde, the song did suggest that what would become known as “The New Blonde” was on its imminent way.

Bon Jovi

Had you been standing on Exhibition Road, London SW7, on a balmy Saturday midsummer evening about eleven years ago – to be exact, it was 28 June 2003 – you would have seen an unusual sight. Up the road are walking several music writers and/or bloggers of high distinction. A few hundred yards away, in Hyde Park, Bon Jovi are on stage, and they are playing their best-known song. The music writers in question involuntarily begin to sing along with the chorus, extremely loudly.

There may be a lesson here about the magic of pop music – and yes, I was one of these music writers strolling up the gentle inclines of South Kensington – in that Bon Jovi have rarely, if ever, been “hip” or “cool,” and yet their rock gets to the places that so much other rock doesn’t reach. “Livin’ On A Prayer” – for that is what we were singing along to (I know who the others were, but won’t divulge their names here) – is a “Don’t Stop Believin’” that you can believe.

The song is so uncool that it even depends on a riff from Peter Frampton’s old guitar voicebox. But I’d much rather hear about the daily struggles of the working class from a New Jersey guy who knows exactly what’s happening and why. Jon Bon Jovi’s singing is heartfelt but never pompous. Desmond Child was brought in to make the song more pop – I expect he helped out with the chorus – but the whole is done with such forceful hope and optimism that you can believe what they are singing and playing. Which is why we sang along to them. Anti-union, Jon Bon Jovi was asked? Not at all, he replied – I am simply observing what trickle-down economics does to people. You can always rely on blue collar Democrats.

Europe

No British rock band could have come up with something as unknowingly unapologetic as "The Final Countdown." Imagine the Darkness tackling an anthemic song about imminent apocalypse; Hawkins would be gurning away in his unfunny falsetto, the guitar solo would be suffocated by the gigantic inverted commas enclosing and enslaving it, the night flight to Venus would be but a planet-sized eyebrow to ward off the blasted Cool Police.

But Europe were Swedish, and thus had neither guilt nor guile. Their TOTP performance of "The Final Countdown" was a masterclass in 1974 Rock School bits of business, with their frontman Joey Tempest - I ask you, Joey Tempest! - with his magnificent sub-David Lee Roth mane of perm, dressed head to foot in leather but with his permed chest proudly on display, going through all the tricks; using the microphone stand as phallus, agonised hand pointing towards sky as he considers the end of Earth and the wisdom of rhyming "Venus" with "seen us," picking up and spinning the guitarist around mid-solo...meanwhile the defiantly 1974 synth lead melody (bargain basement Star Trek, but why not?) affects its would-be poignancy as 1986 drums cascade like the motors of the rocket ready to convey Earth's few benighted survivors to another and better land.

Quite admirable in its way, and clearly appealing to those same neglected pop-metal punters who had bought "Eye Of The Tiger" and for whom Metallica and Slayer were perhaps a little too "progressive," "The Final Countdown" did its Continental business. Whether Europe ever managed to reach Venus, however, is not recorded; their follow-up, "Rock The Night," however, suggested that earthly pursuits maintained a greater pull.

Gary Moore

Almost an Irish Big Country, this, complete with proto-Riverdance jig riffs, but really it could be an ancient folk song. The protagonist is arrested for armed robbery and sent down for ten years. He is innocent but cannot protest his innocence as his alibi involves spending the night with his best friend’s wife. Instead, he will hold his tongue, serve out his decade and hope that everything is still under control when he comes out. A double-edged morality tale whose like was already rare, even in 1986.

The Ward Brothers

They were from Barnsley, they were brothers, “Cross That Bridge” – a record remarkable for its complete unremarkability – made #32, they never came close again, and I would have put in “Bassline” by Mantronix instead. I was a huge Mantronix fan in ’86. Their first two albums, The Album and Music Madness, are Cubist genius. The NME’s Gavin Martin roared in his review of the latter that the end of music was nigh. So that was good news.

Hymn To Her

The first happy ending to a Now compilation since Now 6, and this is where we take our leave of the Pretenders. The song was actually written by Meg Keene, who knew Chrissie Hynde back from their days at Firestone High School in Akron, and is a feminist anthem which quietly but devastatingly makes its point, sung beautifully by Hynde (albeit with a touch of Stevie Nicks wistfulness on occasion).

Lena tells me that a biker Chrissie knew in her Akron days had the habit of playing the same record over and over whenever he got angry or depressed. That record was “The Great Pretender” – I don’t know which version he played, but do know that Sam Cooke’s reading inspired the name of Chrissie’s band. See what Ashley did there?

Sunday, 12 October 2014

U2: The Joshua Tree





(#343: 21 March 1987, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Where The Streets Have No Name/I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For/With Or Without You/Bullet The Blue Sky/Running To Stand Still/Red Hill Mining Town/In God’s Country/Trip Through Your Wires/One Tree Hill/Exit/Mothers Of The Disappeared

“I’m looking for something.
Someone who wants to see and can.
Nothing’s alive anymore.
Is this the universal plan?
And I can see ahead my eyes are infinite.
Speaking with the dead but nothing’s definite.”
(Annette Peacock, “A Loss Of Consciousness,” 1968)

You know the story – how a rock singer travelled the world, on tour with his group or on humanitarian fact-finding missions to Ethiopia, El Salvador and Nicaragua, experienced, saw, heard and read about one America while dreaming of another, and then came back to Dublin only to find the same desert around him wherever he went, a metaphorical desert which, even at home, told him that there was no longer a place called home, that this was a destroyed or destroying world in which nothing could grow, and left him with the question of how to survive in a world which was almost totally against him.

Was it 1986 or 2014? The same villains and culprits, but with different names; a common cause for the blood, suffering and deaths. The Joshua Tree is the story of an attempt by that rock group to make, or persuade, something grow in this desert.

Like The Unforgettable Fire, Eno and Lanois were more or less in charge; they oversaw the recording on an alternating weekly shift basis. Unlike The Unforgettable Fire, the group wanted to make more tangible songs about things that mattered to them. Anecdotally, the division of labour seems to have been as before, the balance slightly weighed in favour of Lanois, although the band called in Steve Lillywhite at a very late stage, and much to the two producers’ chagrin, to remix three songs with a view to making them stand out more on the radio, as singles, although he did not remix “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and remixed the album-only “Bullet The Blue Sky.” The final running order, subject to Bono’s insistence that “Streets” and “Mothers” should top and tail the record, was decided by Lillywhite’s wife, Kirsty MacColl.

Despite this, The Joshua Tree largely sounds like an Eno-dominant record, whereas Robbie Robertson’s eponymous debut solo album, released a few months later, and partly involving U2, was unmistakably a Lanois job. Moreover, it sounds like one of Eno’s ambient studies which continually gets gatecrashed by a rock group. Hence the residual drift from Apollo which slowly sails into sight at the album’s beginning is eventually joined, and then superseded, by the Edge’s urgent, delay echo-aided, high-toned six-note guitar arpeggio, Mullen’s thunderous drumming and Clayton’s Jah Wobble-ish bass; it is unrealistic to expect the U2 of 1986 to have been aware of Acid House, something that only began to gain popularity slightly later in 1987, but there is that same hyperactive propulsion, the need not to stop moving.

Lyrically there are enough winds, storms, nails, stones, poison and rain in this record to fill several Bibles. But it’s clear from Bono’s delivery that he is running away from something; so he is not merely thinking of the unnamed streets of the parched backlands of Ethiopia, but of the streets in Belfast where people can be named and their religion identified on the basis of the street in which they live. The song’s proposal, if we take Bono’s “you” as meaning “us,” is for humanity to rip it up and start again.

“I Still Haven’t Found…” is half the speed, but Mullen’s very familiar drumming tattoo puts us in mind of a sequel to “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and while I am sure that Eno, a devotee of gospel music, prodded the group to record a gospel song (“You say you’re Christians – well, here’s your chance to prove it!,” although Bono was at the time listening to groups like the Swan Silvertones), this remains a song of profound doubt. In spite of all the torment the singer puts himself through, we are back in the land of “My Elusive Dreams,” and Bono’s is an uncertainty which even the backing “choir” (multitracked Edge, Lanois and instantly recognisable Eno) cannot assuage. If anything, the most telling musical commentary here is made by the Edge, whose guitar growls and swoops like an onomatopoeic heir to Keith Levene – despite all the talk about going back to roots, this remains post-punk music.

Likewise, “With Or Without You” builds up slowly and patiently, the Edge deploying Michael Brook’s “infinite guitar” to create drones and atmospherics rather than soloing or riffing as such – I read somewhere that one major influence on the Edge’s playing during this period was Bill Frisell, and if you listen to the latter’s work on two other important 1987 releases, Power Tools’ Strange Meeting and John Zorn’s Spillane, there are definite affinities – with Bono sounding remarkably like Ian McCulloch (“With Or Without You” is on record as being the first U2 song that McCulloch liked!). Is he singing about a lover, or his audience, or his music, or to God? As his suffering incrementally increases, the music  patiently gathers in intensity, before bursting open – this is where Lillywhite comes in – before settling down again, away from the foreground.

The nearest that the Edge comes to playing a “solo” is on “Bullet The Blue Sky,” but again he goes for swooping downward runs – like the eagle come to peck the last bones out of Reagan’s America – or lines of feedback and sustain which stop just short of chaos. Bono solemnly sings, then breathlessly narrates a dream ofAmerica versus what Reagan ‘s administration was actually doing to the people of El Salvador, as though the idyll is repeatedly being interrupted, intruded upon, by a money-mad gangster. Aided by Mullen’s clattering drum figures, which could have come from the introduction to Elvis Costello’s “I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea,” we have to realise that what we are witnessing here is a remoulding of rock which doesn’t have any clear precedents, and is different in kind to what the Smiths and New Order are doing. “Bullet” sounds like the middle section of “Whole Lotta Love” stripped of all machoness and posturing – reducing rock, or enlarging it, with the aim of making “rock music” exceed itself. When Bono speaks of the howling women and children running into the arms of America, and the music dissolves, we think of that last line’s double meaning where “arms” could mean weapons – it is one of the most chilling final moments in any rock music (see also “America Is Waiting,” the opening track of Eno and Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts).

But side one ends, or culminates in, piano, with occasional stray pedal steel and harmonica figures, as though heard from six floors above, and the numbing requiem “Running To Stand Still,” about a couple, hopelessly addicted to heroin, in Dublin’s Ballymun flats, around which the young Bono played as a child (“I see seven towers, but I only see one way out”). You go all around the world, but always end up where you started because you cannot escape yourself. The rhythm section rumbles in for a brief spell to remind us that once the Velvet Underground recorded a song called “Heroin,” but otherwise the landscape, and the protagonists’ lives, steadily diminish – and not once does the singer call moral judgment on their plight. I note the scat refrain which may derive from “Whiskey In The Jar” and wonder whether the band had Phil Lynott in mind.

If side one had all “the hits,” then side two goes somewhere very different – and where have we heard that before in terms of major rock albums involving Eno? Not so different that it jettisons lyrics, or the group – at least not initially. But we are barely halfway through “Red Hill Mining Town,” a more conventional, if still pained, emotive rocker which reminds us of where people like Radiohead got their start – Bono probably means his “I’m still waiting”s more than Diana Ross did – before synthesisers again appear on the horizon and those booming gospel harmonies return (a brass band can also be heard). And yet this is no cod-American mythology – the cover shots in the desert-cum-national park (if you’re wondering why the band look so pained, it’s because it was bloody freezing out there when Corbijn took the photos) may actually be a red herring for the record as a whole – since it’s a song about a community torn apart by the 1984-5 miners’ strike (based on the late Tony Parker’s observational study Red Hill: A Mining Community). Like Parker, they take no sides – and at the time came into some criticism for not so doing – but merely report on what they see.

“In God’s Country”,” a sceptical salute to the Statue of Liberty, is a fine if standard example of uptempo U2. But “Trip Through Your Wires” – salvation through love – underlines a few parallels in its 6/8 gait, particularly the Smiths (“Back To The Old House”), the Cocteau Twins (the way in which Mullen’s drumming is mixed, booming and cavernous) and R.E.M.; if Life’s Rich Pageant practically picked you up in your chair, deposited you in the outside world and instructed you to look at, appreciate and absorb it, then The Joshua Tree ponders what you should do with the world once you’re out there. Bono plays harmonica (in between gleeful vocal whoops) and the Edge plays guitar as though they don’t know how to play the harmonica or the guitar (cf. Miles’ instructions to John McLaughlin on In A Silent Way).

“One Tree Hill” is remarkable; an ode to U2 roadie Greg Carroll, who was originally a Maori from New Zealand but was killed in a motorcycle accident in Dublin in 1986 (and to whom the album is dedicated) sung over what sounds like 1981 electronica, but what gradually reveals itself as being a trio of string players (the Armin family from Toronto, no less), and also in part a tribute to Victor Jara, Bono’s vocal goes from restrained to disturbed to howls of uncontained grief. Some critics see Bono as the sticking point on this record, but I can think of no other way to deliver these thoughts, these messages – Bono, if anything, sounds more like a medium for the words. The song ends with an electronic requiem (“Oh, great ocean…”) which is essentially just Bono and Eno, and the parallel example of the Waterboys' This Is The Sea cannot have been far from their minds.

But “Exit” remains one of the darkest things U2 have ever done; reconstituted by Eno from elements of a jam session, the music lurks about in corners of night before twice breaking through into a riff so decisive, intense and frightening that it’s little wonder that the music finally backs away from it. The recording is like a mis-assembled jigsaw puzzle of U2 (see also Roxy Music’s “The Bogus Man”). In the foreground, meanwhile, Bono murmurs of – what? Who? A killer, of others or of himself? Somebody with too much misapplied power (“So hands that build can also pull down the hands of love”)? This is far, far away from the easy answers of “Two Hearts Beat As One.”

The closing “Mothers Of The Disappeared,” about the bereaved mothers of the El Salvador conflict (and indirectly also the Chile one, and there may have been others in Bono’s mind), hardly sounds like there’s any U2 left, beginning with fourteen seconds of rain falling on a roof, and then a melody which, although Bono came up with it in the course of writing a song to teach the children of Ethiopia about basic hygiene, sounds, as it is played, like an offcut from Another Green World. As Bono urges, at the close of the song and the record, that we “see their tears in the rainfall” – the album at times sounds like one elongated crucifixion – and we wonder exactly where we’ve heard that combination of bass guitar lead and drum pattern before, not to mention what is going on with the synthesisers in the background. They come, respectively, from “Atmosphere” and “Warszawa,” and as the song ends, U2 disappear, and we are left with the Eno record that we had at the beginning, as though U2, and hope, were but hopeless dreams, and the reality that, even in 1987, we couldn’t yet escape the ghost of Joy Division.

I’m sure, however, that many of the twenty-five million people who have, to date, bought The Joshua Tree, had another 1980 ghost in mind. Charles Shaar Murray unhelpfully referred to them as the “Irish rock messiahs,” but the fact remains that for an awful lot of people – both of the Joy Division (i.e. our) generation and the Woodstock one of the sixties – The Joshua Tree’s impact was as if rock music had been saved; here, going against all odds, was a rock group who believed in something, just as rock groups were supposed to have done in the sixties, and were not afraid to comment on the world around it. Many in 1987 still hadn’t got over the death of Lennon – the Beatles’ back catalogue finally began to appear on CD throughout the year, and Sgt Pepper very nearly made a return visit to number one that summer – and therefore viewed The Joshua Tree as a record worthy of what a Lennon might have done.

But the record’s ultimate importance lies in how radically the group and its producers were prepared to reshape and recast the basic building blocks of rock, as well as the message which it finally conveyed, namely that even in a desert where nothing can apparently grow, and living in a world which is almost totally against you, you still have no choice but to do what that other Dublin fellow, Mr Beckett (eighty-one in 1987, still alive to hear the record), proposed, namely to keep going. Its achievement is to say that death, metaphorical or otherwise, does not have to be definite. The Joshua Tree is one of the classic number one albums.