Thursday, 18 September 2014

VARIOUS ARTISTS: Hits 5





(#338: 22 November 1986, 2 weeks)

Track listing: I’ve Been Losing You (a-ha)/Walk Like An Egyptian (The Bangles)/Heartbeat (Don Johnson)/Wonderland (Paul Young)/World Shut Your Mouth (Julian Cope)/The Way It Is (Bruce Hornsby and The Range)/What’s The Colour Of Money (Hollywood Beyond)/Each Time You Break My Heart (Nick Kamen)/You Can Call Me Al (Paul Simon)/Thorn In My Side (Eurythmics)/Always The Sun (The Stranglers)/Don’t Get Me Wrong (The Pretenders)/Rain Or Shine (Five Star)/Brand New Lover (Dead Or Alive)/Roses (Haywoode)/Straight To The Heart (The Real Thing)/True Colors (Cyndi Lauper)/You’re Everything To Me (Boris Gardner)/Every Beat Of My Heart (Rod Stewart)/Glory Of Love (Peter Cetera)/A Different Corner (George Michael)/Because I Love You (Shakin’ Stevens)/The Greatest Love Of All (Whitney Houston)/Love Will Conquer All (Lionel Richie)/For America (Red Box)/Heartbreak Beat (The Psychedelic Furs)/Anotherloverholenyohead (Prince and The Revolution)/Infected (The The)/Rage Hard (Frankie Goes To Hollywood)/Rock ‘N’ Roll Mercenaries (Meat Loaf and John Parr)/Fight For Ourselves (Spandau Ballet)/Addicted To Love (Robert Palmer)

By 1986, a truce, of sorts, seemed to have been reached between the Now and Hits series; just one release each for much of the year, neither of which coincided with the other (Hits 4, Now 7), with Hits 5 released two weeks in advance of Now 8 for Christmas. That it stayed on top for two weeks perhaps indicates who was still really ahead in this race, but I wonder whether too great a rush was made to get the record out; just one of its thirty-two songs made number one, with another five failing to make the Top 40 at all (one of which, “Heartbreak Beat,” did not even break the Top 75), and it’s the usual curious mix of intermittently terrific stuff with an ocean of treacly dreariness. Yet again, the charts of late 1986 at times had to struggle to keep up with itself, so rapid were the changes taking place, but here I sense a last-ditch, and possibly forlorn, attempt to make the old stuff still matter.

a-ha

A fantastic start, and one of the Norwegians’ best, with a song and arrangement which at different, and occasionally simultaneous, times suggest the Teardrop Explodes, Roxy Music, Laurie Anderson and even Nick Cave, since this is the tearing-himself-apart soliloquy of somebody who has just killed someone, possibly the person to whom he is singing, in the rain; he puts his gun down on the bedside table and can’t entertain the notion that he could be capable of this. The music rises, dips and challenges; by the time Morten reaches the beyond-exasperated scream of “PREYING” in the couplet “Thoughts to wreck me/Preying on my mind,” he is finished; at one point the song makes as though it’s going to end, before quietly and menacingly restarting. “How can I stop now?” asks Morten, in the full and horrific realisation that he can’t.

The Bangles

Did “Walk Like An Egyptian” really become an unofficial Arab Spring anthem? Its balance of whistling girl-group bubblegum and noisy gong and guitar dissonances sounded sufficient to spur any revolution. There may also be an irony in the Bangles’ best-known songs all having been written by men. But Liam Sternberg had first offered the song to Toni Basil, who turned it down; three of the group take turns to sing the verses, but producer David Kahne didn’t like any of Debbi Peterson’s lead vocals, so relegated her to back-up and furthermore replaced her drums with a drum machine. The wonder is that they didn’t throw the guy out of a twenty-fifth storey window.

Don Johnson

Written by industry pros Eric Kaz and Wendy Waldman, “Heartbeat” dates from an age where famous actors were inexplicably also called upon to sing. Crockett mostly roars rather than sings the song, in a below par Bryan Adams fashion (the line “I’ve been standing by the fire” being delivered as though making immediate and unexpected contact with a red-hot poker). Its typical skyscraper-skateboarding drum fills, guitar squeals and DX7 blasts cannot quite mask a degree of sweaty straining on Johnson’s past. Only #46 in Britain, but a top five smash in the States (Hits 5 would probably have done much better in the USA, since many of its songs were far bigger hits there than in the UK).

Paul Young

“I see you in a dress of blue/With a question in your hand/I see you in your attitude/Of sorrow and demand” – another Thatcher analogy? Alas, Young now sounded lost; it is frequently impossible to hear him clearly through the production fog, and the song, which at times tries hard not to be Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl,” is not really up to anything. For many 1983-5 stars, the late season of 1986 was to provide some unwelcome shocks; suddenly the likes of Howard Jones, Ultravox and Young were finding things very hard going. Passing fashions? In part, but substandard material was also to blame.

Copey

The Belated Entry of the Crucial Three Into Then Play Long, Part 2of 3. What’s left to say about Julian Cope? Musician, songwriter, psychedelic metal warrior, activist, psychogeographer, noted archaeologist and historian, accredited expert on the rock music of Germany and Japan, Head Heritage founder, acidly smart autobiographer and, most recently, acclaimed crime writer. This suggests either a versatile and inquisitive mind whose interests and energies are tireless and inspiring, or a restless and unfocused spirit, unable to stick at one thing for more than five minutes.

On balance I’d go with the former. I loved the Teardrop Explodes, me. Wonderful WTF bubble-organ McGoohan-delia, they were. I played Kilimanjaro without end in my first year at university – and realised I had a lot of work to do when a neighbouring student asked me whether “Treason” was Duran Duran. “Ah, it’s all the same to me,” he grinned. Wilder was a bleared, BLURred November ’81 spike of rosy dreaming which made that month and my endurance of it worthwhile. I wore my father’s old RAF coat with suitably psychedelic scarf, and at the time I still had enough hair to let it grow to a reasonable facsimile of the Cope crop. All that and he had an alter ego (Kevin Stapleton) who brought Scott Walker (Emmett Hayes) back from charity shop wilderness into the centre of something.

I stuck with him right through his first two solo albums and was pleased to see him back on TV in late ’86 belting out “World Shut Your Mouth” from his customised mike-stand-cum-stepladder. After two records of Barrett quiescence he reckoned he’d earned the right to do a third album of scuzzy garage rockouts, and that was Saint Julian. “World Shut Your Mouth” was and is a great “Louie Louie” ripoff with Cope just wanting everybody to pay attention to things worth paying attention to. Better on the album where it never seems to end.

I’ve stuck with him up to Brain Donor as well.

Bruce Hornsby

Ben Folds was just about turning twenty when piano-toting Hornsby, from Williamsburg, Virginia, crept onto the scene with his melancholy “The Way It Is”; as with “Boys Of Summer,” an abject reminder of how the ideals, if ideals there were, of the sixties were impolitely being scored out. “Some things will never change,” sang Hornsby, but nobody listened to the counterpunch of “AH, BUT DON’T YOU BELIEVE THEM.” Best heard as the background to Mancunian rapper MC Buzz B’s profoundly moving “Never Change.”

Hollywood Beyond

Remember when Mark Rogers was the future of pop? True, it was one week in late summer when Melody Maker was a bit stuck, but this fusion of Squeeze’s “Take Me I’m Yours” and Irish jig is still quite striking, even though, with the repeated “Don’t tell me that you think it’s green/Me, I know it’s red,” Rogers argues his point more often than he strictly needs to do. An album followed, but not in Britain, and Christ knows what became of him.

Nick Kamen

She’s there, of course, co-writing and producing, and crooning in the background – as if her trademark “Look in your eyes” scarf weren’t a big enough clue. But if Madonna now considered herself too good to go on compilation albums, there was still room for her cast-offs; male model Kamen can’t really sing and does his best with painfully thin material. Meanwhile, an exasperated Sean Penn wonders whether he’s supposed to be the eighties’ giraffe.

Paul Simon

Just to say that Ezra Koenig was something like two-and-a-half years old when Graceland came out, and that one of the more boneheaded reviews of the record at the time praised the South African musicians for playing their instruments “with vitality and honesty.” How does one play a musical instrument dishonestly? On the I Love Music message board, one of the responses to my piece on the record states: “Graceland is one of my favorite albums ever I won't listen to alternative opinions under any circumstances so there,” and the author of the post in question appears to be named “art.” Who am I to argue with the giant responsible for such masterpieces as Fate For Breakfast?

Eurythmics

In which the formerly trying-hard-to-be-hip duo surrender to the demands of FM programmers and do a boring, straight-down-the-middle-of-the-block-line AoR record of which this is the most stupidly played and replayed example. The album was entitled Revenge, and was very popular with people who didn’t buy albums. What do you mean, you need me to explain what albums were? What am I, Lowell freaking Thomas?

The Stranglers

Laurie Latham produced again, and it’s a typical mid-period Stranglers iron-fist-in-mutton-glove, though Hugh Cornwell’s snarl is more noticeable than it was in things like “European Female,” as if the whole band is just about ready to blast out and shriek proto-Merzbow no-tonality for a hundred straight fifty-CD box sets. The song? It’s about Thatcherism, and the modern world, and Chernobyl, and “Always The Sun” may refer to the newspaper.

The Pretenders

I’m not sure where Chrissie Hynde was finding herself in the middle of 1986. She didn’t really have a band, for a start; on the Get Close album, she expressed extreme dissatisfaction with a Steve Lillywhite-produced cover of Hendrix’s “Room Full Of Mirrors” (although it sounds more than fine to me). Specifically, she thought drummer Martin Chambers had lost it – although, as she later admitted, he was still severely traumatised from the loss of two former bandmates – and so let him go. Reassembling, with Bob Clearmountain and Jimmy Iovine now producing, and a room full of session musicians (one of whom was, by a delicious irony, Mel Gaynor), Get Close essentially turned into a Hynde solo album, with two songs about her children (“My Baby” and “Hymn To Her”), a lot of funk, and “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” apparently inspired equally by a British Airways in-flight call-signal (the song’s central four-note melodic motif) and an attempt to “do” the Beatles.

Still with Jim Kerr at this point, Hynde’s state of mind during this period could fairly be described as undirected – when Simple Minds came back from touring, the Pretenders had to go off on tour, so the two never really saw each other – and some of that uncertainty may be projected into the song’s structure and performance, in which Hynde implies that this might be great or just very temporary, with several sardonic nods to Kerr’s big visions (“Upon a sea where the mystic moon/Is playing havoc with the tide”). But her tone and the song’s ending are none too hopeful.

Dead Or Alive

Pete Burns sounding relatively low-key and unfussed here, maybe because Stock, Aitken and Waterman have worked out how they’re going to sound.

Haywoode

Her first name is Sidney, she was in Flick Colby’s Zoo troupe for the later days of TOTP, and “Roses” is moderately likeable bubblegum from industry pros Leeson and Vale. Typical can’t live with/without ‘em fare; she wants to go, but then he brings her roses – “WHAT? DO? I? DO?” she asks us. It’s a more convincing conundrum than any of Phil Collins’ sweatier ones.

True Colors

Proof that in 1986 Cyndi was still hipper than Madge. On one side there was the iceberg, “DON’T DIE OF IGNORANCE,” clinical staff wearing gloves or refusing to touch patients, Section 28. On the other, a song originally written with Billy Steinberg’s mother in mind, which was first offered to, but turned down by, Anne Murray, but a song which, through circumstance, Lauper made her own and which became unofficially resonant throughout the gay/LBGT community. Politically, this record’s most radical song, and also its most sweetly sung. “You’re beau-ti-ful like a rainbow,” whispers Lauper, as though saying goodbye.

Boris

What is this reactionary shit – “Because you’re everything a woman ought to be/Sweet and kind and pure of mind/And beautiful to see?” Did rock ‘n’ roll, or liberation, actually happen? Bear this in mind; no matter how hip, cool and wacky you imagine the eighties to have been, it was filled with gunky crap like this. It might as well still have been 1952, which I gather was part of Thatcher’s big idea.

Rod For One’s Back

Yes, on this day of days I’m going to come down hard on this lament about a lost soul wanting to go home to Scotland. Why? Not just because Rod’s actually from Finchley and is a Scotsman only in his mind. But because – despite his even writing the lyric – I just don’t believe him. Listen to Frankie Miller’s “Caledonia” and you can palpate the singer’s tearful confusion; he means what he is singing. Whereas throwing in tropes like “Jacobite,” “Emerald Isle” and “swirling pipes” is a tourist’s Hairy Highlander notion of Scotland (which snows when you turn it upside down). It doesn’t even begin to accentuate the heartache felt by people who are now uncomfortable living in a country where they are jeered at, patronised, threatened and compared with Hitler. Rather than deliberately being kept out of the charts and off the radio for political reasons, “Every Beat Of My Heart” rose to number two. Stay with us, Scotland, because tourists have money.

Peter Cetera

“I am the MAN who will FIGHT for your HONOUR!” Look, it was Karate Kid TWO for feck’s sake.

George Michael

"Dedicated to a memory" it says on the reverse sleeve of the single, and on the sleeve's front there is a black-and-white photograph of a man with his back turned to the camera, some distance away, walking into a huge park, unutterably alone. Although Michael was still, at that point, officially one half of Wham!, the record drips with pungent tears of reluctant farewells, although its subtext is more elusive.

A far more complex and satisfying record than "Careless Whisper" - and yet also a far simpler one - "A Different Corner" can fairly be said to be the first entirely solo UK number one single, in that it was entirely composed, sung, played and produced by the same person. It could with equal fairness be described to the most radical of 1986's number ones; there is no chorus, and the song's reflective cycle wafts by in placid echoes of repetition. Comparisons were made at the time with Eno's Another Green World - that refractory Harold Budd treated piano, the same steady, unobtrusive flow of electronics, the distended vocal drones in the background (though the latter may also owe something to the intro and outro of McLaren's "Madam Butterfly") - and through its snow-white sleeve and aura of finality, a kinship with "Atmosphere" was seen. This latter was not far-fetched, since George Michael had recently appeared on a BBC2 arts programme where he reviewed, among other things, Mark Johnson's book An Ideal For Living: A History of Joy Division, and spoke warmly of their music.

"A Different Corner" is indeed a remarkable piece of music in that here, after four years, we finally see the real George Michael emerging, out of the shuttlecocked shorts and faux-machismo, with a finely-judged and emotionally open vocal performance worthy of an older and sadder Cassidy or Donny, and it's a George Michael we could learn to love. And yet, although he sounds more open than on any of his previous records, the real meaning of the song had to remain buried for a dozen more years.

The giveaway comes in the lines, "I would promise you all of my life/But to lose you would cut like a knife/So I don't dare." In other words, he loves his best friend ("'Cos I've never come close in all of these years/You are the only one to stop my tears") but he loves him that way also, and he is tortured because he cannot bring himself to tell him (his "I'm so scared" is the reddest of excoriating wounds) - the same subtext compelled to remain within the shadows of "Johnny Remember Me" and "Have I The Right?" The music's careful placidity is a striking counterpart to his agonised voice - and where does that "And if all that there is, is this feeling of being used" come in, when really it's the paralysing fear of rejection that prevents him from getting close to his desired Other but also stops him from moving away; the torture of lifelong compromise - "I should go back to being lonely and confused/If I could...I would...I swear." Then his unheard pledge also echoes into the far horizon, just as the man retreats into the greenery, walking away...in silence.

Shakin’ Stevens

A glossy, mid-eighties AoR ballad. By Shakin’ Stevens. Did his record company even know what to do with him by this point?

Whitney

We’ve done this song before, and she means it, like George Benson and Kevin Rowland meant it. She’s also angrier, and more doomed, than either.

Lionel Richie

Dancing On The Ceiling is sometimes so laidback a record that it verges on the comatose. Certainly the title song is the equivalent of your uncle doing the Charleston to the Meat Puppets; “Say You, Say Me” is nonsense which should have been renamed “Just Say No,” and “Ballerina Girl” is fundamentally wrong. “Love Will Conquer All” didn’t do much as a single here - #45 plays #9 on Billboard – but it’s the great lost Richie song, a lovely, shimmering ballad of reassurance done with Greg Philliganes and Cynthia Weil, sung in duet with the excellent Marva King, and featuring a wonderful, proto-Erykah Badu chord sequence of unanticipated elegance (G major seventh, C seventh, F suspended second, A seventh [suspended fourth], A seventh and D major seventh). Forgotten by me for a third of a lifetime, this was a very welcome reminder (“Give love a chance”).

Red Box

What the hell were Red Box (on) about? Pioneering pop/world music crossover? A KwikSave Thompson Twins? Old seventies heads trying to be modern? Pretentious, overqualified hippy garbage which Radio 1 played instead of LL Cool J or Age Of Chance? “Lean On Me” annoyed me hugely when it went top three, and so did “For America” when it went top ten a year later. An assault on Reagan’s assault on Grenada and Nicaragua? Perhaps, but it makes me grind my teeth, so anaemic, bitty and inconclusive is it as a pop record. Whoever’s singing backing vocals on it (Anthony Stewart Head is there). “For America” is why Big Black’s Atomizer had to happen.

Furs

Ah, gentlemen, you took so long to get here and you lost all of what made you moderately interesting (for fake Robert Wyatt records you can’t get much better than “Love My Way”). Flippy-floppy AoR in which Butler reminds you that he used to be someone.

Parade

So what if the film’s rubbish? So was Purple Rain. As with Graceland, Prince built up the songs from rhythm tracks upwards. But no other pop record in 1986 was as ceaselessly inventive as Parade, and maybe only very few pop records since 1967. “Christopher Tracy’s Parade” starts off as Sgt Pepper being ambushed by the strings from Septober Energy (via Westbrook’s Marching Song) and from there just gets darker and stranger, at least in part because of the arrangements provided by Lennie Tristano’s old pupil Clare Fischer. “A New Position” is “Sex Machine” without a James Brown. “I Wonder U” is a detuned transistor radio trapped the other side of Maxinquaye. “Under The Cherry Moon” is Dennis Potter’s idea of the twenties, the record’s “When I’m Sixty-Four.” “Girls & Boys” toys with French kisses before the whining “Cross The Tracks” Moog loses both patience and tonality before thudding into “Life Can Be So Nice” which atomises into a Cubist jigsaw puzzle of Bolan, Sheila E’s drumming as far out, and far in, as Susie Ibarra on Ten Freedom Summers, before CUTTING OFF and leaving us in the lounge of Hell that is “Venus de Milo.”

Side two features more “conventional” songs, one of which (“Kiss”) is the best pop song about sex ever recorded (whispered, always suggested), culminating in the increasingly bitonal desert of “Anotherloverholenyahead,” which Lena reckons is like James Brown marooned in Joy Division’s wasteland. Thereafter there is nowhere to go except the patient, acoustic elegy of “Sometimes It Snows In April.” Don’t you realise, listeners, that something beautiful – perhaps even pop – is dying?

Infected

Not that that worried The The. If Soul Mining were a microcosm of eighties Britain as glimpsed from a basement in Lewisham, then Infected took on, and fought, the gloss. Told off in the NME for not being the Go-Betweens – but they slagged off Parade and thought Mantronix’s Music Madness was the end of civilisation, so who gave a fuck what they thought? Certainly not the thousands of readers who deserted them – Infected is a terrific and big-sounding album, not headachy big like Let’s Dance but as gleaming and threatening as the Big Bang and the newly-opened M25. “Sweet Bird Of Truth” DID sound like the end of the world – Johnson’s scrambled “We’re above the Gulf of Arabia” was truly scary; exactly the sort of thing Bowie should have been doing instead of dreck like “Time Will Crawl” – and “Heartland” frankly sends “For America” out the door/window/continent/planet. Whereas the title song welcomes annihilation; he goes for “love,” knowing that it will kill him, the closing angels at the elevator ready to send him down to hell. “Dear God, God, God, GOD, slow train to dawn,” he hisses with Neneh Cherry, and you’re down there with them.

This is highly unsettling stuff for a Christmas-time number one TV-advertised hits album.

Dylan or Dylan?

They kept the record shops open on the Bank Holiday Monday so that people could go in and buy “Rage Hard.” But it was no use. Holly’s boring, climax-killing announcement, with sampled crowd noises, in the introduction suggested nothing new or different, and a lot less. He begins by impersonating Scott Walker, and then Martin Fry, before remembering to be himself. But the song doesn’t have a song, and the lyric is the usual tired parade of go-for-it tropes (“Don’t give up and don’t give in” etc.). Morley called the second album Liverpool because he knew that was where the band would soon be heading back. It was very bad progressive rock which gave 1986 hard-hitters Red Box and It Bites a run for their money, if not mine.

Why “Dylan or Dylan”? Because ZTT seemed obsessed with Dylan Thomas not going gently into that good night; two songs on 1985’s Insignificance soundtrack, one of which was sung by Roy Orbison, referenced the poem directly. But enough of books, the audience screamed, what about some ACTION?

But they were busy watching the wildlife, and engaging in other activities beginning with the letter “w.”

Meat ‘n’ Parr

“Rock ‘N’ Roll Mercenaries” is the latest contender for the worst song ever to appear on Then Play Long. “Money is power – power is FAME!” bark, unlovingly, a one-hit wonder striving to have another one, and a temporarily washed-up performer who would shortly be reduced to participating in a special edition of a now unmentionable television game show, involving the Royal Family. The Loaf forgot to introduce Parr onstage one night, Parr took umbrage, and they haven’t spoken since. Everything that was wrong with the eighties, and rock music, and not necessarily in that order.

Spandau Ballet

When you think about it, the sentiments of “Fight For Ourselves” aren’t that far away from those of “Panic” – Britain is sinking and something’s going to change, maybe violently. But the music, though making an initial fist of presenting a “harder” Spandau, falls back on glossy soul clichés all too soon, and future wannabe Conservative MP Tony Hadley evidently hadn’t a clue what he was singing (“Well, if life is here before my eyes/I find it hard to see”). How were the rest of us expected to receive it any differently?

Robert Palmer

Not that far away from “Infected” – “Oblivion is all you crave” – “Addicted To Love” nevertheless carries something of a curse; Palmer, Bernard Edwards (who played bass and produced) and Tony Thompson all died young, while Terence Donovan, who directed the video, committed suicide. Still stuck in the Power Station – the guitar solo is Andy Taylor’s – Palmer dimly tries to recall 1974 tropes while knowing that doom is perhaps not that far away. Kim Gordon’s intentionally blank reading, done in a ten-cent record booth and heard on Ciccone Youth’s The White(y) Album, is perhaps one of the records of the decade.

Moral: An end is coming. How courageous are we to grasp another beginning?

Moral 2: And the dice are loaded. No matter how or where they land, they always read “five.”

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The POLICE: Every Breath You Take: The Singles






(#337:  8 November 1986, 2 weeks)

Track listing:  Roxanne/Can’t Stand Losing You/So Lonely/Message In A Bottle/Walking On The Moon/Don’t Stand So Close To Me '86/De Do Do Do De Da Da Da/Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic/Invisible Sun/Spirits In The Material World/Every Breath You Take/King Of Pain/Wrapped Around Your Finger



"The constant challenge is what next?  In the space of two albums we've sold more records than people do in ten.  In England our album is quadruple platinum, or something.  The constant challenge is to forget that, because it is a distraction, it really is.  You've got to try to come up with music that is valid and relevant, not just feeding the industrial machinery that all of a sudden is all around us."   Sting in 1980 - Ask by Paul Morley.


When I was at Sheridan College, one of the courses I took was about human relations - how to get along with other people, no matter what kind they were.  It was a bit of an odd thing, but as supposed future secretaries we were bound to meet all sorts of psychological types, and this was Sheridan's way of gearing us up, so to speak.  The teacher was someone who (by her own admission) had something of a short temper, but she tried her best to get across to us the importance of understanding others.  The 70s was full of pop psychology, and we got some of it in the form of what I think was called Transactional Analysis (it was actually Psycho-Geometrics, but we got it all, trust me); something to do with squares, triangles and circles and other shapes and how they could all, with some patience, learn to cooperate with each other.
As you can see, the designer of the cover here definitely knew something about this idea, as above each member of The Police is a different-colored shape:  blue square for Sting (I'm sure Sting would think of himself as a star or a hexagon, but no), a yellow circle for Andy Summers and a red triangle for Stewart Copeland.  And these are all fitting symbols, seeing as how The Police pretty much ended due to the perpetual disagreements between the square and triangle, with the circle haplessly looking on.   

The cover emphasizes the fact that here we have three different people with different outlooks on life who have come together to do nothing less than become the (then) biggest band in the world.  That they started as newly bleached-blond for-a-chewing-gum-ad New Wavers born out of necessity seems almost beside the point.  "Roxanne" is a sharp song, the chords rough yet precise, the emotion raw and yet old-fashioned.  It is a last-ditch plea to a woman who "doesn't care if it's wrong or if it's right" and here's Sting to come along and tell her it's bad, that he loves her and doesn't want her to sell herself anymore.  It's something of a fantasy, this song - how many men fall in love with prostitutes and try to save them? - but the increasing tension in the song is damn real, and Sting's yelping (I can't think of another singer for whom that verb is more apt) indicates that he knows just how dangerous it can be for a girl out on her own in the night.  I don't know if the blue square is prone to I-know-better-than-you-doism, but the whole band here is united and the sound is a bit claustrophobic and we even here some sarcastic laughter in the beginning, which I've never been able to understand, unless it's some arrogant pimp joking around.  Who knows?

If "Roxanne" borrows a bit from reggae, then "Can't Stand Losing You" borrows a bit more - choppy chords, door-slamming drums, the singer's mind is made up - no one's trying to talk him out of his decision - and the accumulating details are sad but also adolescent ("my LP records and they're all scratched" would strike terror into a vinyl hipster today).  How reliable is the narrator?  What did he do to this ex-girlfriend that was so terrible?  Instead of some introspection on how maybe there's a reason for her brother's wanting to kill him and her sending his letters back, there's just self-pitying "you'll be sorry when I'm dead" and an inability to take responsibility for his actions, swallow his pride and admit he's wrong.  Again and again he can't stand losing this girl, the whole song pogos to this at the end, over and over.  Even at the time I don't think I was that much impressed with this song, but they do it straight and Sting's self-awareness makes his singing convincing and a little frightening.  

"So Lonely" could be seen as a different way of dealing with being alone - and the relaxed beat here immediately puts the listener at ease.  Summers free ranges over the off-beats, and Sting uses the word "soul" - it's an upbeat song about not having anyone, about having a broken heart and yet bounding along, using sorrow as a springboard to something greater.  "Low low low" chants Sting at one part, or is that "Lone lone lone" - metaphorically here are The Police, all alone, not really punk, not really reggae, not really rock, but something of all three, with some jazz thrown in for good measure.  Their only rivals here were The Clash, but it wasn't in the nature of The Police to do double or triple albums, and having a fairly libertarian red triangle with Copeland meant that a certain impatience was built into the band from the beginning.  

"Message In A Bottle" is just about everything The Police are great at, all at once; our lonely hero is a castaway with nothing but old John Dowland and Bob Marley records on his desert island, and somehow he finds paper, a bottle and something to write with to see if he gets any kind of response back.  It's like a cartoon, this song, but that fusion they wanted to make cooks up here very well, and the suspense of whether there will be a response is met with an avalanche, a rush of energy and for all the girls who loved The Police because of Sting, there were an equal amount of guys who were impressed by the band's ability and skills and general coolness.  And thus, with Reggatta de Blanc they took on the world very easily.

"Walking On The Moon" has to be one of the quietest number one singles in the UK; which is to say, when you listen to it, you have to turn it up and turn everything else off.  The bass and guitar call and respond; the drums drop in and out with ease; something subliminal seems to be happening, dreamlike even.  The choruses have ringing, shining sweetness, as the lyrics about love - that first swooning unreal feeling that doesn't let go - finds its equivalent here in the drumming, sense of weightlessness that spaaaaaans and leaps and floats...up...and up...(and here I think of the instrumental break in "Strawberry Letter 23" by Brothers Johnson, which I also could listen to many times in a row)...and then gently comes back down, to walk in the normal world, or at least a bit closer to it.  "Keep it up" could refer to the band's playing itself, or to the feeling the song's about, or to who knows what.  A song as big as the world.  And how to follow that up?

It is very awkward to have to report that when The Police got together in '86 to record again, instead of new songs Sting just wanted to cover their old hits.  Yes, believe it or not, the idea was to record all their singles again, but Copeland had an accident and this odd untenable idea was thankfully scrapped.  (Copeland and Sting apparently got into a fight over a drum machine or something, too.)  The original of "Don't Stand So Close To Me" was the band's attempt to do something a bit different - the ominous beginning, the fantasy threatening reality, the resolution, if there can be one, in the typically upbeat chorus- all this is lost in the re-recording of the song, where there's no tension, where it sounds as if the whole thing has indeed happened before, the end credits are running and people and standing and stretching at the end of the movie*.  Lolita is now "that famous book" and the whole thing sounds busy and tired, a waste of time and energy, on the band and producer Laurie Latham's part**.  It's impossible to imagine a song like this making the charts now, but if you just shift it a little, it's the dilemma of a famous pop star/blue square who has hordes of young girls screaming at him every night, who has to deal with that pressure...

And with a sigh, we come to the gentle skank of "De Do Do Do De Da Da Da" which is almost textbook Police, a song about how most rock lyrics are meh and how most communication is meh and jumping around signing nonsense is at least unpretentious and somehow more true to rock than heavy messages.  If only Sting could've kept more to these words...(I may as well add here that it's entirely possible to do a great compilation of The Police from non-singles, and indeed some think their best stuff is their non-singles.  "Voices Inside My Head" from Zenyatta Mondatta would be on mine, for instance.)   

I've written about Ghost In The Machine before so I will politely skip the next few songs, except to say that the mysterious Canadian sound appears in "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" and gives this side a warm start that it desperately needs...

...because I find the songs from Synchronicity to be metronomically precise and a little cold; Sting has been dumped and is paranoid and lonely, a stalker on the prowl; and yet this is interpreted as a love song, the plea of a lonely man for her to come back, and Sting is trying (?) to have it both ways here.  The song is quiet and spacious, like a mansion; empty like one too, circling around and around itself, as Sting sings "you belong to meee" in a way that is again self-pitying and yet hapless.  I am always convinced he feels bad, sure, sure he does, but why the constant watching?  The song wills itself to be calm, stay cool, but it broods and sulks instead.

"King Of Pain" is about more suffering, endless metaphoric suffering, enough to make Phil Collins green with envy.  It's not just that he suffers, but it's his destiny, man; how a little black spot on the sun could be interpreted, either by the narrator (hopefully viewing the sun indirectly) or anyone else as "my soul up there" remains to be seen, but this man is in a groove where all he can see is pain, and he is the rich man on his golden bed, hoping that you - the lost love - will come back and somehow end this whole situation.  The song lumbers along, as one awful image after another is presented, and Summers' solo is dutiful, as is the fade in-fade out around that little black spot on the sun.  This is a world away from the fightback against being "So Lonely" - the clip-clop here is resigned and somehow proud, as if Sting wants to be the King, to be the top at something.   

"Wrapped Around Your Finger" is a nasty song, pure and simple.  Sting uses all his education - hello Mephistopheles, hello Scylla and Charybdis - all to talk meanly about his ex-wife, who has no capacity to answer back.  Sting portrays himself as an apprentice who then becomes a master, who is somehow corrupted and then triumphs over said corruption.  Or something like that.  The whole song makes me itch, the ugliness of the lyrics made worse somehow by the classical references, made worse by the blandness of the song, where Sting is so upfront that the other two are there, sure, but not as felt as before - this is Sting and Co., not The Police, and hearing all these songs together shows just what they were able to do at their prime and how they couldn't perceive - not once but twice - when to call it a day and move on.  

How this fits into 1986?  This seems to be a year where a lot of the old - if I can put it that way - gets to the top, in lieu of the new.  One last lap of honor here for The Police; already by '86 standards they seem like a generation ago, a time when MTV didn't exist (there's an offer in the cassette insert for a video version of this album for £15.99, which was a lot back then), Walkmans were unheard of, Smash Hits was a new phenomenon and so on.  There is a uniqueness to The Police at their best that can be heard in bits and pieces to this day (see Bruno Mars) and it remains fresh; the delicacy and openness and fun in that are hard to pull off, as the musicians have to be tough with each other, demanding, in order to make it work, stubborn in their own shapes.  A better compilation than this one exists, but this is the one that got to the top, which is where The Police made most sense; we will get to the blue square in due course, but for now here is the late 70s/early 80s neatly parcelled out, as if a certain time and feeling are being commemorated, as the black and white cover photos would suggest; something to remember, as a new era dawns...   


*It's a very "for improved sound quality, this track has been re-recorded by one or more of the original musicians" but it's all three of them and it's still awful.

**Sort of the proof that Paul Young's albums were very much his creation, with Latham just making the whole thing sound good.




Monday, 15 September 2014

Paul SIMON: Graceland





(#336: 4 October 1986, 5 weeks; 31 January 1987, 3 weeks)

Track listing: The Boy In The Bubble/Graceland/I Know What I Know/Gumboots/Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes/You Can Call Me Al/Under African Skies/Homeless/Crazy Love, Vol II/That Was Your Mother/All Around The World or The Myth Of Fingerprints

Browsing through the various reviews of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Graceland, I still detect a lot of bogus fence-sitting. “He broke a United Nations cultural boycott BUT…,” “He was condemned by the African National Congress and blacklisted by the UN BUT…,” the rather unwelcome implication being, well it was a quarter of a century ago, everything’s been sorted now, can’t you people keep quiet and celebrate an alleged work of genius?

And it may be that this is merely the tip of the West-knows-best, Third World-keep-your-ingrate-mouths-shut cultural iceberg, and that its tentacles extend deeper into the realm of what, in 1986, began to be termed World Music – at the time of its conception, purely a marketing tool to distinguish various records in shops and to concert promoters and broadcasters. My long-standing bugbear with World Music is that the West has not opted merely to observe and better broadcast the music of other cultures, like Starship Enterprise FM, but to try to influence and divert the course of that music. Hence labels like Shanachie and Earthworks, and records like Buena Vista Social Club and Talking Timbuktu which, though more than worthwhile, are presented like a classroom lecture, rather than something one might dance to or enjoy.

Add to this the fact that Q magazine got going in 1986, in great part as a response to the dead end into which weeklies like the NME appeared to have rammed themselves, and the ages of the musicians who suddenly decided to get into African and Indian ways of music and the critics who wrote about them, and you may detect a collective tiredness on the part of the babyboomers who never complained about rock when it was “their” time but were now middle-aged and growing weary with newness.

This feeling – on a plane halfway between smug and resentful – is summarised by Paul Simon in the midst of the song “That Was Your Mother” in the line: “You are the burden of my generation” (itself following on from the couplet “Before you was born dude/When life was great”). And so Graceland was welcomed and hailed as “new” music to which old people could listen.

Acres of analysis, including at least one PhD dissertation, have been expended on the album and its background, as well as its internal conflict; go to South Africa and break the boycott – which was in place for a myriad of good reasons – but expose its music and musicians to the outside world and slap Pretoria in the face with the culture it was trying to suppress.

I didn’t think it was that simple at the time, and even less so now. Graceland can be summed up as Third World music being loaded with a serviced debt of First World problems. On one hand you have Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing not quite serenely about death and destruction, on the other deliberately obfuscatory ruminations on cinematographers’ parties and Fulbright scholars (I do not believe that erstwhile Fulbright scholarship recipient Sylvia Plath, had she lived, would have had the slightest of time for Graceland). You have Simon being very careful with attributing composer credits to his umbaqanga songs, paying the SA (and, in some cases, Nigerian and Senegalese) musicians triple union scale; and then he rips tunes off Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters and Los Lobos without giving them any credit. “As if I didn’t know that/As if I didn’t know my own bed,” complains Simon on the title song – and the highly unwelcome subtext is that our (i.e. the West’s) affluently quirky problems are what the 1986 world is all about, rather than apartheid.

“The Boy In The Bubble,” dependent on Forere Motioheola’s slo-mo accordion, Vusi Khamalo’s gavel-like drums (oddly, or not so oddly, reminiscent of Levon Helm) and Baikithi Kumalo’s Wrigley’s chewing gum bass, works best because Simon at least attempts to address the modern world as an increasing, encroaching nightmare where bombs in buggies are part of a tapestry which also includes non-stop CCTV surveillance, the dominance of rich technologies over deliberately primitivised paupers; Simon sees the end coming as surely as Cohen did in “The Future” six years later – when he reaches the “dying” of the final “distant constellation/That’s dying in the corner of the sky,” he sounds finished with humanity.

As for the South African tunes – and I note that SA and American tracks on individual songs were more or less recorded separately – the miserable conclusion is that they’d sound great if it weren’t for Paul Simon (but then the paradox of, if it weren’t for Paul Simon, would we even be hearing this music in the first place?; it is certainly better recorded than most African records of the period, and some credit for this has to go to stalwart engineer Roy Halee - Simon lists himself as producer).

When a fusion is attempted, as in the title song, it sounds awkward; the Everly Brothers and King Sunny Adé’s pedal steel player pinned onto its surface like passport stamps. The opening imagery (“Through the cradle of the Civil War”) is quite arresting, if not really Robbie Robertson, but the song quickly degenerates into a whine about his first wife who done left him, and we are left with the problem that this is really not far away from Phil Collins – “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” is just an platinum Amex “Uptown Girl” with horns which could have come from Earth, Wind and Fire.* By the time we get to “Crazy Love,” with its squarely thudding drums, we might as well be listening to No Jacket Required.

(*Youssou n’Dour, making his second appearance this year as a validifying guest on a prosperous white man’s record, contributing some percussion to “Diamonds,” is a case in itself about the pitfalls of the World Music wagon; 1984’s Immigrés may have been Bill Laswell’s idea of a Youssou n’Dour record, but its two extended meditations on displaced friends and fellow travellers cut deeper than Simon wittering on in the back of a cab about a friend who’s had a breakdown. But 1986’s Nelson Mandela saw him steadily moving his focus towards the profitable West, and despite (or maybe because of) the Spinners cover, and was a whole lot less fun or radical than the Étoile de Dakar cassettes which I bought out of Stern’s in the early eighties. On 1989’s The Lion, however, there were signs that he was coming West on his own terms; “Old Tucson” is an astonishing Senegalese counterpart to Van Morrison’s “Coney Island” and far more adventurous and disturbing in its implications than “Graceland.”)

But far more disturbing than any of the above is Simon’s stupid, stubborn refusal to address apartheid to its face. Ladysmith Black Mambazo prove on “Homeless” that they don’t really need Paul Simon, their lines inventively weaving with each other, with the occasional soloist (mainly Joseph Shabalala) cutting loose; indeed, when Simon’s voice reluctantly comes in at the beginning of the song’s second section, he sounds annoying and utterly superfluous.

Worse is “Under African Skies,” a duet with fellow boycott breaker Linda Ronstadt where one verse describes Shabalala’s young life in very general terms, but another talks of Ronstadt’s early life in detail (“I said, take this child, Lord/From Tucson, Arizona”). As with Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, where privation and revolution in turn-of-the-century Russia take second place to Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, the song seems like an attempt to downplay strife, poverty and racism as deeply as possible; yes, there is apartheid, and there have been bloody deaths, and there are shanty towns, the song implies, but what is all this when set against the rise of one of the foremost singers in seventies American pop/rock?**

(**Something similar happens in “You Can Call Me Al”; lyrically the old Paul Bowles scenario of dumb, rich tourist lost in a place he doesn’t know but gradually absorbing himself into its fibre, but in its video the song becomes merely an excuse for Chevy Chase and Simon to lark around. Again we are left with the implication of “we’re more important than you.”)

The Cajun and East L.A. romps which end the record sound like afterthoughts rather than completing a fusional circle. As with the African songs, however, one has the urge to listen to the musicians themselves, without Simon burbling on about retired talk show hosts (I mean, who CARES?). Simon saw this as a new start after the non-performance of Hearts And Bones, but the irony is that the latter is the better record, with Simon saying what he feels about Magritte and Lennon without having to hide behind a mask of ethnic quirk. Ultimately, though – and given the resemblance of “I Know What I Know” to “Double Dutch” – one pines for a genuine shyster like McLaren to come and rip politesse to shreds and create fantastic new shapes with the residue. Put it this way: Duck Rock still sounds extravagant, funny and bombastically brilliant. Repeated listens to Graceland will send you to sleep.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

FIVE STAR: Silk And Steel





(#335: 27 September 1986, 1 week)

Track listing: Can’t Wait Another Minute/Find The Time/Rain Or Shine/If I Say Yes/Please Don’t Say Goodnight/Stay Out Of My Life/Show Me What You’ve Got For Me/Are You Man Enough?/The Slightest Touch/Don’t You Know I Love It

Excerpted from the individual member pocket biographies in the inner sleeve (have we had any of these on a number one album since the Rollers?):

Responses to the question “Ambition”:
Deniece: To be the best group in the World
Stedman: To be successful at the things we do
Doris: To be this perfect for the rest of my life
Lorraine: To be a very successful writer and the biggest group in the World
Delroy: To be an outstanding phenomenal producer and engineer

The cover sees them, obviously posed, in a hypermodern room which doesn’t look very comfortable – they look like they’re in a fire station, nervously contemplating how to slide down those poles, and the flowers sprouting out from between Delroy and Doris don’t look real either. Go to the rest of the sleeve, however, and it is revealed that they are posing in and around the Lloyds Building, in mid-1986 only just opened (the only other album from the period that I can recall making a fetish out of the Lloyds Building on its cover was Time Boom X De Devil Dead by Lee “Scratch” Perry and Dub Syndicate).

Some people grunted and grumbled at Five Star’s unconcealed, unambiguous monetarist approach to pop and ignored the five-star (ahem) review Jonh Wilde gave Silk And Steel in Sounds, not to mention the record’s appearance in the year’s unranked Top 50 albums list as voted for by the writers of the then newly-opened Q magazine. Maybe they should have checked to see whether Wilde and Q were actually right, because if you’re harrumphing at what the Pearson siblings said at the top of this piece, you have to realise that the package is really not that far away from what Sigue Sigue Sputnik were promising (if rarely delivering).

Now, I had and have no time for miserable types who have or had no time for Sigue Sigue Sputnik, particularly as they were so evidently funnier, more colourful, more engrossing, and infinitely more 1986, than all the scolding grey rubbish like View From the Hill and the Redskins that we were “supposed” to like. I embarrassed the proprietors of a certain record shop by gleefully bopping all over the premises to Flaunt It! “They’ll never get this in Britain,” I said, “but they will understand in Italy and France!” I bought the big Japanese robot package that the album came in (and I’ve never gotten rid of it either). So what if they didn’t manage to sell half the between-songs advertising breaks? So what if they only basically had one song (how many rock ‘n’ rollers could you say that about?)? They were a terrific flash which barely lasted beyond the record’s just under forty-two minutes, and how right that Moroder, of all people, knew what to do with, for and to them.

I mean, the Weather Prophets weren’t even in it. But even I have to admit that what Sputnik mostly promised, Five Star actually saw through. Everything about Silk And Steel screams, or coos, money, and privilege, and futurism (apart from when you look at the credits, and see old names coming back – Richard James Burgess, Paul Gurvitz, Pete Sinfield, Billy Livsey, Pete Wingfield who managed to produce both Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, a record which asks its listeners; what do you want from a record?, and Sunshine On Leith by dangerous Marxist insurrectionists the Proclaimers, including this week’s number one single “Cap In Hand”) – but Five Star’s success was arguably the greater achievement because instead of hanging out with broadsheet music journalists loudly proclaiming what they were going to do, they played the game straight. For two-and-a-half years the group seemed glued to British television; switch on the box and they were always on somewhere, doing something. They played by the rules, even if these were the rules that had been laid down by their parents.

Responses to question “Worst Experience”:
Deniece: Fire alarms going off in the hotel in America
Stedman: Having a 3” splinter stuck in my hand
Doris: My trousers falling down on TV
Lorraine: Not having one!
Delroy: Car accident

Buster Pearson was from Jamaica, came to Britain in the sixties and did the rounds as a touring guitarist, backing visiting stars such as Wilson Pickett and Desmond Dekker. He then set up a number of reggae labels in the seventies and early eighties.  Having had more than enough of “authenticity,” he presumably resolved that his children would not go through the same thing and, moreover, saw them as a potential Jackson 5 UK, Black Britain’s own Osmonds (although I note that in the sleeve photographs great cosmetic care was taken to make the Pearsons look as white as possible). Hence Five Star was his idea, and when he could afford it, he bought a huge, gated mansion, complete with guard dogs, barbed wire etc., in which the band would both live and work.

Hence there isn’t, in Five Star’s work, the sound of young people necessarily expressing themselves, but acting as their parents might expect them to act. There is therefore a surfeit of caution in their music which makes the idea of Five Star more attractive than the reality.

“ALTHOUGH WE’RE NOT RELIGIOUS, WE DO BELIEVE IN GOD”
(from the sleeve credits)

With the singles – and, in various countries, no less than seven of these ten songs were released as singles, six of which were in Britain (and Doris’ “Don’t You Know I Love It” was a B-side) – there is a little more evidence of inspiration and intrigue in their work. More streamlined than their debut Luxury Of Life – you did get the feeling that songs like “All Fall Down” were being made up as they went along – Silk And Steel’s first three songs are more than adequate avant-bubblegum, which is hardly surprising, given that at least some of them were recorded in and around Los Angeles with top-dollar players like Greg Philliganes and Paul Jackson Jr to hand. “Can’t Wait Another Minute” is teenybop SOS Band, while “Find The Time” is really quite sublime – both songs offer crashing drum programmes, malfunctioning/sampling CD-is-stuck stutters (on my prehistoric CD copy, there is even a dinky little CD sign on the bottom left hand side of the cover, just to remind you that this is a CD), glorious chord changes. “Rain And Shine,” co-written by Pete Sinfield, is different again and quite charming and even moderately affecting in its Robin Hood/Major Tom juxtapositions (it sounds like a modest and settled update on what Sinfield attempted on Bucks Fizz’s “The Land Of Make Believe”).

All good enough for a remixed 1973 Jackson 5 album, you might think (side one). But then the record loses impetus. “Stay Out Of My Life,” written by Deniece, isn’t bad in an “Everybody Wants To Rule The M25” schaffel sense but the rest is humdrum and extremely lightweight R&B which highlights a central problem with Five Star; their voices have no palpable personality. Most of these songs are Deniece plus backing singers, and when Stedman and Doris briefly step out front, you are almost embarrassed for them; if the intention was to create a Romford equivalent to DeBarge, then it failed, since Stedman’s wan attempt at balladry (“Please Don’t Say Goodnight”) falls limply at the majestic ankle of El DeBarge’s immediately identifiable voice – since DeBarge only really had the one, highly atypical, big hit single here, British audiences are mostly unaware of glories like “What’s Your Name,” “All This Love” and “Time Will Reveal”; their second album, 1983’s In  A Special Way, would have been acclaimed as a masterpiece had Thom Bell produced it a decade earlier.

But off-the-peg producers and songwriters varying from track to track were not the way forward – as DeBarge’s own paradoxically flat third album Rhythm Of The Night had demonstrated – and consequently it is difficult to establish what, if anything, was going through the minds of the Pearsons as they rehearsed, choreographed and recorded these songs. It feels as though they are being imposed upon – and you couldn’t even have said that about the Ronettes in, say, 1964 – and so I hear three-and-a-bit smart slices of teenpop and an awful lot of airless, fatally over-cautious filler.

“IT’S BEEN A LOT OF HARD WORK BUT FUN MAKING THIS ALBUM. WE HOPE YOU ENJOY IT AS MUCH AS THE LAST ONE.”

Does that remark imply that they didn’t?