Thursday, 25 August 2016

The CHARLATANS: Some Friendly

(#415:  20 October 1990, 1 week)

"They have few heroes, no anthems, no style to call their own." TIME magazine, July 16, 1990

"Some say I'm vague/And I'd easily fade/Foolish parade of fantasy" "De-Luxe" Lush, Mad Love EP

And so we reach that most awkward year, 1990, yet again; a year, by evidence, when no one knew exactly what was going on.  I know TPL has been here for some time, but it could be said that the 90s started in 1987 with the successes of “Jack Your Body” and “Pump Up The Volume.”  It could also be said that the culture wars started in 1987, with The Closing of the American Mind and The Church of SubGenius.*  The fin, as Angela Carter had put it at the time, was coming early this siècle, and in some ways this liminal period was bound to be unpredictable and disturbing, by turns.**

As it was, by July my mom and I had left Oakville behind for Toronto, as we both worked there, and a friend of ours was leaving her apartment for Japan to teach flamenco dancing, as she could find no other work; and so we got the place above Clay Design at Brunswick and Harbord, in the whole mix of University of Toronto local houses, streets and vibrations.  It was a hot summer, a wet one (I recall the kitchen ceiling had a leak) and a contentious one, nationally.  The Meech Lake Accord, the Oka Crisis, the “Into the Heart of Africa” show at the Royal Ontario Museum – people were rebelling, speaking out, protesting and changing things up.  The 1990s were not going to be a laidback decade – I could tell that, already.  

At the time I was still listening to CFNY (though I think they were calling themselves 102.1 The Edge by now) and trying my best to keep up with things.  We, for some reason, didn’t bring the television with us, so I had no television to watch, just as there was no door on my room (my mom rigged a piece of cloth for a door) nor on hers; indeed we slept on futons, and kept doing so for the rest of the and books were the thing, as well as nights deemed too hot to cook, so we would go out to eat, always seeming to hear either Ottmar Liebert or the Gipsy Kings in the restaurants’ sound systems.  It was an odd time, a time for Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet to have their classic Savvy Showstoppers album out, with the hit “Having An Average Weekend” used as the theme music of the show The Kids In The Hall.  I say odd as I had to adjust to actually living in Toronto, and not simply knowing it by my time at Ryerson or the previous trips we had taken as a family for this or that purpose.  I was a resident, and had friends who also lived in Toronto; to live somewhere so big was a bit intimidating. 

But my  life was as mundane as ever, save for poetry.  The University of Toronto neighborhood had plenty of new and used bookstores, all of them interesting and different, from the abnormal psychologies and literary angles one on Harbord (I definitely got a book on Plath there) to the used place called Harbord Books that had cookies for sale and up on Bloor there was Book City, which was two floors of books, new and discounted, with a college-student-gonna-read-Chomsky-now-see-you-later kind of feel.  I started to slowly but surely get the poetry books of all the Voices & Visions poets, from Whitman to Plath, and tried to read the LRB and had no idea who Gazza was, nor how soccer could be so significant. 

I listened to music – loved Pod, Bossanova not so much; was still obsessing over The Chills, so much so that I got a guide book to New Zealand and read it with a kind of mild mania. I read the Village Voice and visited Washington D.C. just as the line in the sand was being drawn and Kuwait invaded; listened to Tairrie B’s The Power of A Woman and The Fall’s compilation 458489 B-Sides.  I stole a poster for The Stone Roses’ “One Love” and put it up in my room.   I was too busy to slow down and think, hm, maybe I need therapy.  There was always another book to read (I started reading the classics according to Kenneth Rexroth – more on “the canon” later) and another album to listen to.  But by the time Some Friendly appeared, I was worn out.   I was sensitive to everything and was ignorant about a lot – not the happiest situation, and it would exist for a long time. 

At some point I became so sick I had to stay at home, as I could not speak.  I had what I guess I would now call psychosomatic laryngitis and I felt a bit as if I was in a free fall.  The music that had sustained me would continue to do so, but what Concrete Blonde talked about on their 1990 album Bloodletting – “The Darkening Of The Light***” – was taking place within me, and suffice it to say that where The Charlatans were coming from and where I was coming from were so different, as to be opposing worlds.  Which I know they were.   Baggy was never going to be my thing, as it was fundamentally upbeat, male, new-old-fashioned, and rather casually ruthless.  It cared about record collections (more on them, anon) and groovy sounds and seemed to be broadcast from some other planet. 

A planet where magazine covers like this one, published just weeks after we’d moved to Toronto, could never appear:
Was I part of this rather aimless and unfocused generation?  One look at it and a friend’s anger became vocal – that was in no way her.  She knew what she wanted to do and was going to do it.  But was it me?  Well, what else was I?  From the looks of it, everyone in the UK music world was hell-bent on having a good time and/or becoming famous, and people around me were ambitious too, for their goals, whether they were professional or romantic.  None of that applied to me, and I watched these ambitious people achieve, achieve and achieve in 1990/91, feeling no compunction to be the same way.  I was not surprised when they succeeded, nor was I surprised when they failed, as had to happen; I already knew the universe was not really 100% with me all the time, just as I knew I was (how did I know? I just did) not going to meet anyone, male or female, with my exact taste in music in Toronto.  Someone who liked Swagger by The Blue Aeroplanes, Big Fun by Inner City, the Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye compilation, Goo by Sonic Youth, Submarine Bells by The Chills, Ex:El by 808 State, Supernatural by Stereo MC’s, Born To Sing by En Vogue, Fear Of A Black Planet by Public Enemy...

I have tried once again with The Charlatans and because it takes me back to this period, when I was always too numb or too sensitive, too angry or too passive.  They are a rockin’ little Hammond organ-driven combo at this point, all youth and possibility, and off chance moments of greatness (“Then” is my favourite song).  It is steeped in references to the past, ones explained fully in Telling Stories (influences include the following:  Felt, The Brilliant Corners, The Claim, Talk Talk, The Rain Parade, The Pixies, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Spencer Davis Group, The Fifth Dimension, The Doors, New Order, Johnny Leyton and It’s Immaterial).  Some of this is, suffice it to say, not apparent to me, but then I don’t know all this music (to me the Paisley Underground remains underground, save for The Bangles).  However I don’t think any amount of listening is going to fundamentally change my experience of this album – it’s good, great at times, and the first indie rock number one album of its kind since The Smiths (not forgetting Burgess’ favourite band  New Order), but like I said, baggy was not really for me.  (Nor especially is indie disco, which I have at least seen, sort of, in person.)

To the album, briefly:

“You’re Not Very Well” is quite cool; Burgess’ voice is kind of nasal, whiny, the sort that is effortlessly and almost stereotypically English.  Not twee, exactly, but already it’s the first song and he’s seeming to say he is superior to where he is from, in a way.  This rejection comes straight from The Stone Roses’ “I Am The Resurrection.”  The superiority complex leads to....

“White Shirt” is punk in sentiment but sounds like the 60s in a near-car-commercial sort of way.  The chipper arrogance continues, and this from someone who was happy to work in an office.  Where’s the rock ‘n’ roll danger, as one magazine would later say.

“The Only One I Know” is a big song; a sad song; the kind of song that sounds like Steve Winwood could have sung in the Spencer Davis Group in ’66, no problem.  Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends on how you look at things, I guess.  This hit sold the album, and certainly sold it to me, at the time.

“Opportunity” is slower, a bit shoegazey (The Charlatans as a group had not much time for shoegazing groups).  I think Burgess said this was about the Poll Tax riots, but then so many songs were inadvertently about it at the time, right there in the charts.  It sounds too vague to apply, and the whole “station to station” reference just makes me think of Bowie.  Maybe it’s about being lost on the Underground?

“Then” oddly enough sounds more like the actual “Station To Station” – the beginning part where  it’s always backing up on itself – only somehow flatter, and not able to escape the way Bowie does.   This song is in part about the Gulf War that was going to happen, but the actual Gulf War will provoke music much angrier than this, in 1991.  Still, this is a simmering song that sounds as if it’s coming from a place.  Rob Collins’ solo at the end is good, and I am not surprised to find out he was an angry player, who really threw himself into it, not in a showoffy way but with real feeling.

Oh, and it’s not prog.

“109 pt. 2” has a bit of dialogue form Angel Heart in it, and is more psychedelic than anything else so far.  Instrumental, with more Collins goodness as I think there are echoes of who knows what future hauntological musics here....until the end, when I there’s what sounds like a gunshot.  Welcome to the 90s....

(side two)

 “Polar Bear” sounds more like 808 State with guitars than anything else, and Andy Bell liked the title enough that he wrote a song for Nowhere with the same one.  This is the most “baggy” song besides the big hit so far, and I can imagine hearing it in Eastern Bloc, too.  As I have never eaten a Revel, I must have taken this to be a drug song at the time.  Cough.

“Believe You Me” Well hello whacka-whacka guitar, this does sound familiar, doesn’t it?  Yet it is a Collins song, so if you just listen to him, then it makes a bit more sense.  The “having a funky time on the weekend at the Blow Up club” song.  I am trying to get the intimidating vibe that is supposed to be here, but I cannot be intimidated by Tim Burgess. 

“Flower” is bass-led (for once, it’s a relief) and it’s influenced by the Pixies, without the whoops and yells and interruptions they had, that deadpan sense of humor, just a kind of quiet-loud-quiet that will become more prominent in the 90s.  Burgess sounds pretty mean here, but then bad girls are what make pop interesting.  And girls will decide themselves if they are bad, or not.....

“Sonic” is when I have to stop for a moment and wonder wait a minute now, isn’t that the same chord as “You’re Not Very Well”?  I guess this is what they mean by an album hanging together, but it’s getting to be a bit claustrophobic for me.  It’s a nice song, though. 

“Sproston Green” is the big closer; named after a real place, with all the band moments in place – Hammond, business-like drumming, big chords, enough to make the folks who remember the 60s happy and those born in the 60s feel both new and old at the same time.  I keep thinking of a band that will have many of these elements, but will do something different with them, but as they are just forming in 1990, I can’t mention them....yet. 

 Is the arrogance of the Charlatans earned?  Are they the best band in Britain?  So many times this is said by bands, and that arrogance can convince enough people in the media to repeat it, if only as copy, as something to report, rather than fact.  For what it is, Some Friendly is good; but I cannot say it stuck to me at the time, the way other albums did. 

For a voiceless, exhausted and unknowingly-in-need-of-therapy me, it all went by in a hazy, noisy swirl; I did not have the same reaction as one James Brown did, then of the NME, who wrote about them as if on drugs (hm, remove the ‘as if’), drugs that in no way could interest me.  The world was common, mundane, with its bright spots; The Charlatans are a band who are on their way to something here, though whether it is the past instead of the future it is hard to tell.  There are bands pushing against the past, like a swimmer pushing against the wall of the pool to propel themselves forward; and there are ones content to swim around in that past, touching the wall once in a while, but who are buoyant on tradition, history and perhaps more than a little nostalgia.  Some bands keep pushing, and some don’t.  You can list all the influences you like, but if the songs aren’t sticking with me, well, why should I be interested in the influences?  There are those even, out there, who don’t really believe bands can be influenced; they just steal things and hope no one notices....and in the meantime, we leave the north and head to Oxford: 

Nowhere by Ride was a little closer to what I liked.  I liked the cover – if Some Friendly is druggy/fuzzy, Nowhere is just...oceanic.  It’s bigger than anything, and that bigness comes with an impatient “Seagull” rising and rising at the beginning, and the ocean itself, waves against the shore, at the end.   This too is indie, though Creation instead of Beggars Banquet, meaning they were under the peripatetic and somewhat malign influence of one Alan McGee, who talks about them in his book Creation Stories as if they were a prize heifer, more or less.  The songs either soar and fiercely rock, or they gently ebb and flow, and the songs are about paralysis, love, escape, the idea of nowhere, of nothing....the odd noises at the end of “Paralysed” like there’s a lot of folks out there with psychosomatic laryngitis, trying to say something, but what?  It’s all AAAUGGGGGGAAUGIIIIIIIAAAAHHHH.....You can hear that Andy Bell will join Oasis one day in songs like “Taste” – upbeat, big, embracing, even if the song is again about the ephemeral, the longing, the not-quite-there....”Here And Now” has train references and a harmonica, but that’s about all it owes to The Smiths; it is too busy blasting outwards, harmonies (Mark Gardner and Mark Gardner, I think) are modest, indie, English...

“Nowhere” is HUGE though.  If there are MBV leanings, they come out here especially strong, that harmonica there, but the gentle voices set against nothingness....a kind of void I would have to get used to, as the decade wore on...the song is floating, a bit dubby, not at all psychedelic as such, but here are the waves as the guitar cuts off, and the seagulls, and that sense of being neither here nor there...a very different and unsettling ending, one that leaves the listener stranded, figuratively.....

There was an album that sustained me through all this, but it wasn’t Some Friendly or Nowhere; it was this:

I know Gala is a collection of EPs Lush had already made, but this didn’t matter to me; what mattered was that this was good.

Tremendously good, and done with such ease, though I know that probably wasn’t the case.  Their sound is shoegazing huge, but somehow even more open, free than Ride.

Now, I know Lush are mostly just okay musically; but it is perhaps their limitations that are their strengths - only on 4AD could their gauzy sound make much sense.  The stop-start songs (such as the God-like “De-Luxe” - truly a song that saved me, it is all joy) and the songs that are one chord and then another similar chord afterwards are given a lot more oomph by the drummer, Chris Acland.  Drummers are, I know, not really all that respected or loved by the public, but if a band has a great drummer than half the battle is won (U2 are an excellent example of this, as was Blondie).  Drummers are supposed to be a bit dim, but then so are catchers in baseball (wicket-keepers in cricket) when in fact this cannot be the case.  Lush veer from languid (“Sunbathing, ” which starts with some off-mike laughter - much needed) to ferocious (“Thoughtforms”) to blisspop (“Breeze” - so positive, a relief from the arrogance and windswept abandon in the albums above) and everything in between, including an ABBA cover, and Acland is always there to give form, to push, to lead the group, essentially. (This is why I find it easy to imagine jazz covers of Lush songs, as opposed to Ride or Charlatans ones.)  The catcher/wicket-keeper may not seem like they are doing much, but in fact they are observing everything, slyly directing the pitcher/bowler and doing this so easily that they fool the other side into thinking nothing is happening, when it most certainly is.  As TIME magazine was so easily fooled by thinking that because this twentysomething crowd didn't aspire to be just like them, there was something wrong about them....

In a year when Fifth Column (a Toronto band that were tough and feminist and of course made fanzines and so on) was a thing, Lush were feminist too, only through a veil of pedals and not always distinct vocals. (Done this way as Miki didn't really want to sing, but had to.)  Didn’t matter.  Having two females who sang and wrote and played in the same band was enough to distract me entirely from Mancunian music altogether. With Lush I had found my first favourite 90s band, and my hapless state was made much more bearable by them.  For now I was hip deep in the culture wars, the canon, what could be considered the establishment vs. the outsiders, and this was a very slippery place to be, with none of the stability I needed.  But it was the culture, and I was only too happy listen to Lush and gain some health and energy, uncertain as to what was going to happen next.  The canon, I soon realized, was something that was inherent in music as well, and I tried to ignore it and find something I liked, and it didn't.  Lush fit this for me (I always felt that they were something I liked and understood and no one else did, perhaps because I leaned on them so heavily at this time).  Little did I understand what was going to happen, but at least by looking backwards I felt I could see forwards....

Next up:  more restaurant vs. headphone music.

*There are plenty of albums that also seem to start the 90s early, whether it’s trip hop (Mark Stewart) or Box Frenzy by Pop Will Eat Itself or You’re Living All Over Me by Dinosaur Jr, not forgetting Culturcide’s Tacky Souvenirs of Pre-Revolutionary America or even Come On Pilgrim by The Pixies and Yo Bum Rush The Show by Public Enemy, not forgetting The Lucy Show or Janet Jackson.  And of course two far more famous albums, Faith and Bad.  (The word 'liminal' by the way means that social hierarchies "may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt.")

**I wish I could say the same thing for now, but if you look at the album charts it is utterly depressing just how much old music is still in the chart.  By my recent count (including greatest hits comps and albums over two years old) 37% of the albums were old, some dating back to over 40 years.  The noted effect is that unless an album has several hit singles and/or is by someone famous, then a new album can appear and then disappear in the chart in a matter of weeks, perhaps only returning if there’s a tour, a tv appearance or maybe a new single.  Meanwhile ABBA Gold is at Sainsbury’s for £3. And the media, alas, aid and abet all this, particularly the older sections of the BBC, with their complete inability to stop playing music from the 70s.

To put this disturbance into some perspective, last night I was listening to 6 Music and heard a song from 1985 and then one from 1974.  If I had been listening, as I first did, to a radio in 1978 with the same year differences, I would have heard a song first from 1947 and then one from 1936.  This kind of warped sense of what radio is supposed to play is so utterly common as to be unremarkable, but is in fact stultifying.  If the sentiment of the listener is that the past is better than the present, then sticking new songs in with the older ones does not give them a fair shake, as the listener will reject out of hand, like a toddler, anything s/he does not like.  Likewise, if the listener wants to hear something actually new, s/he has to sit and wait for it to show up, if s/he can put up with the increasingly retrogressive tendencies of the station.  And then there are stations that hogtie themselves to a whole decade, and only then about 300 songs from that decade, which were hits.  Those are symptoms of nostalgia, but also of giving up.  The final impression I get here in the UK is that new music has a very tough time of it, and many have given up on anything new completely, happy to keep buying Legend and Queen’s Greatest Hits and so on ad infinitum.

***Also a symbol in I Ching: The Darkening Of the Light is a tough one, but doesn’t this seem familiar:  “In a time of darkness it is essential to be cautious and reserved.  One should not needlessly awaken overwhelming enmity by inconsiderate behavior.  In such times one ought not to fall in with the practices of others; neither should one drag them censoriously into the light.  In social intercourse one should not try to be all-knowing.  One should let many things pass, without being duped.”  The darkness does not prevail; there is light, but it is veiled.... 

Monday, 27 June 2016

George MICHAEL: Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1

(#414: 15 September 1990, 1 week)

Track listing: Praying For Time/Freedom! '90/They Won't Go When I Go/Something To Save/Cowboys And Angels/Waiting For That Day/Mother's Pride/Heal The Pain/Soul Free/Waiting (Reprise)

"These are the days of the open hand
They will not be the last
Look around now
These are the days of the beggars and the choosers"

I'll tell you what it's like, now.

On Saturday we went to a town outside London, not that far outside in fact. We have visited there many times and were there on, shall we say, routine business. I will not divulge the town's name except to say that it has its own distinguished place in rock and pop history and that it has a very useful second-hand record shop which has come in helpful many times for Then Play Long and other purposes in the past.

But on Saturday it was not the same town that we thought we knew. All the way down its main street, in almost every one of the shops that we went into (I'd say all of them apart from the aforementioned second-hand record shop), I was conscious of the fact that we were being stared at disapprovingly. Two middle-aged white people of unremarkable dress but whose voices plainly did not come from "there." I had the feeling that we were being tolerated rather than welcomed or accommodated. Passing the odd pub, I heard the odd mutter that we weren't supposed to hear. I was very glad to be out of there.

On Sunday morning somebody graffitied the front of the Polish centre in Hammersmith, a place which we have passed many times. Despite our Mayor's constant reassurances, people are continually being shouted at in the street, to their faces, to "go home."

This is the different country in which we woke up on Friday morning.

"This is the year of the hungry man
Whose place is in the past
Hand in hand with ignorance
And legitimate excuses"

It's all in the past now, isn't it? That panoramic, all-inclusive society which I was taught was going to be the future when I was younger. I thought of Martin Fry's 2016 words: "I'm a man out of time 'til the stars realign." Instead we have been forced into a rather nasty, oppressive, isolationist society permitted by blatant lies and long-suppressed resentment.

With the past has also fled the future, unless you're fortunate enough to move somewhere which still welcomes the future, like the Scotland of Sturgeon and Davidson. The Glasgow Green which this morning was stickered with neo-N*zi hate slogans. Change racial prejudice for religious prejudice and you could almost be back in seventies no-mean-city Glasgow.

Those who don't "keep up," that is, subscribe to the forcefed neoliberalist programme, are trapped in the past and condemned to starve. And the excuses weren't even legitimate.

"The rich declare themselves poor
And most of us are not sure
If we have too much
But we'll take our chances
Because God's stopped keeping score
I guess somewhere along the way
He must have let us all out to play
Turned his back and all God's children
Crept out the back door"

Is that what people here really want? A hunky dictator who will make them do as they're told because it relieves them of the responsibility of thinking? Whatever they think they have chosen, they must now realise that they have been sold a bill of goods - no wonder the advocates were afraid of "experts," as they'd have been found out - and that, due to not hanging together, we are all doomed to hang separately.

And the word Lena found to express this best was SPITEFUL. Not a bullet fired, he said, and yet an MP was killed. It is as if SHE DIDN'T MATTER.

The future of a generation taken away from them by their sentimental parents and grandparents - SPITEFUL.

The agenda of an entire generation being sacrificed for the convenience of the aged - just like 1914-18 - SPITEFUL.


When did this start?

In 1979, when Thatcher started to order everybody about because it was "time for a change."

In September 1987, when "Pump Up The Volume" went to number one and a generation got off the pop bus. That rift has yet to heal and may never do so.

The old always taking precedence over the young - look at the radio today and tell me I'm wrong.

In 1066, when the French conquered Britain, and so many people here still haven't got over that.

Or 1776, when the exiles, sick of being ordered about at a distance by bossy Britain, FOUGHT the United States of America into existence.

"And it's hard to love, there's so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it's much too late
Well maybe we should all be praying for time"

We can't just "carry on," can we, like nothing had happened, like our lives hadn't been taken away from us? In 1939 nobody prayed for what was happening in Europe with H*tler's lot, but rather went in there, FOUGHT and got rid of them.

And no, I don't know what Churchill, founder of the European Union, would have made of all this.

The wounded skies, like the thunderstorm on Thursday night, presaging apocalypse.

"These are the days of the empty hand
Oh you hold on to what you can
And charity is a coat you wear twice a year"

They've given up on us, haven't they, those who profess to run things? They confess that they hadn't a fucking clue what was going to happen next, no plan in hand. They sold the public a pup, like those auction places in Oxford Street, and the public went for it because nobody was able, or allowed, to make a proper case for the reverse scenario.

Because thought, logic and reason are complex things. Not convenient headlines. Not "A Good Story" to prop up dying old forms of media.

The heart always knows better than the head? Sometimes I wonder if "the heart" knows a single fucking thing.

But nobody was able to make a positive case for Remain. It was all based on fear and you can't woo undecided voters with lots of sticks and no carrot. You could argue that they were backed into a corner - all they could do was emphasise what we'd lose if we left.

There were pertinent and coherent arguments for both Leave and Remain but nobody heard any of them - just the ceaseless whinnying of squeaky wheels. All a game, like the one they came up with at Eton in the late seventies. All a game for those who imagine that Westminster is the universe.

Back, then, not so much to the fifties, the fifties of John Reginald Christie and Alan Turing, but the pre-welfare thirties, with a little charity here and there on the squire's part.

Or if, like me, you studied the period Britain: 1815-51 in History class at school, you realise with horror what we're moving back towards.

"This is the year of the guilty man
Your television takes a stand
And you find that what was over there is OVER HERE"

"So you scream from behind your door
Say 'what's mine is mine and not yours'
I may have too much but i'll take my chances
Because God's stopped keeping score
And you cling to the things they sold you
Did you cover your eyes when they told you?"

Let me tell you how it is.

Years of working my backside off, being one of the star pupils in my year at school - and they wouldn't even make me a prefect because at age ten somebody had labelled me as "timid."

Two decades and an hour after she died I was back home on my own - you're OUT, lad. Let us know when you're moving so we can take the coffee table, LAD.

Half a century of observing people and trying to do my best - not always succeeding, but at least I tried - and what happened on Thursday is the equivalent of saying to me that my life, everything I have learned and done in it, has been for NOTHING. I am now plunged back into a society which existed before I did, which wants things to be the way they were before my parents even met, which has made it very clear that it despises me because of my ancestry and origins and which wants me OUT, LAD.

Where else would take me? I am in my fifties with a questionable heart condition (which may well finish me off before this country becomes REALLY intolerable). I have no transferable skill set that would see me right in (for example) Canada. I am stuck. It's too late for me. But not for you.

"That he can't come back
Because he has no children to come back for"

I am no longer sure that I have a country to come back to.

"It's hard to love, there's so much to hate
Hanging on to hope when there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it's much too late
So maybe we should all be praying for time."

Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 was the second solo album by George Michael. It is by necessity a tentative collection of songs set down apparently at numerous set points between 1987 and 1990 and not all of it works. "Praying For Time" is a reasonably convincing fusion of Lennon's "Mind Games" and Chicago's "Hard To Say I'm Sorry." "Cowboys And Angels" is a magnificent piece of post-Marvin Gaye angst which isn't really jazz - though Andy Hamilton's saxophone could momentarily make you think that - but does underline the continuing development of Michael's subtly radical approach to song structure, which had already begun by the time of "Careless Whisper" - that is, songs which develop as stories, music which flows from the necessity of words, and which reach a conclusion rather than mechanically relying on repeated choruses. The broadly-lit motionlessness of "Cowboys And Angels" in particular suggests increasing familiarity with Antonio Carlos Jobim's work, as well as suggesting a direction in which ABC could have gone - the album could properly have been entitled The Lexicon Of A Lost Ideal, although the subject matter of "Cowboys And Angels" suggest that an alternative song title could have been "Bizarre Love Triangle." Elsewhere he is keen to let us know what he's been listening to - Happy Mondays, Soul II Soul, McCartney, the Stones and even Simply Red come up as probables throughout the record, though on "Something To Save," written in December 1988, he sounds like, if anyone, Morrissey. He's free of the past - or thinks that he is (Shirlie from Pepsi and Shirlie pops up on "Freedom! '90" which itself refers back to an old Wham! song) - and he's anxious to let us know that, although the terminal beach of his Stevie Wonder cover - from that least reassuring of Wonder albums, Fullfillingness' First Finale - indicates where his next moves might lie.

George Michael wrote most of the album, produced it and played a lot of it. In Britain its sales were roughly the same as Faith - both went quadruple platinum - but in the States it only made number two on Billboard and "only" sold two million as opposed to its predecessor's seven million. He did not feel that his record company had promoted him enough - although his reluctance to appear in any of the videos for the singles can't have helped - and he and they began a long and costly fallout. A Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2, focusing more on dance tunes, was scheduled for June 1991 release but the plug was pulled; three of the songs that he completed for the project were donated to the Red Hot + Dance compilation (including his 1992 hit single "Too Funky," whose B-side was a fourth lost album track). We do not see him again in this tale until 1996.

As regards "Mother's Pride," the song, although never a single, was played extensively on American radio throughout 1991. There was a war on, because war is supposedly the answer to everything. I do not know how the Anglo-Greek Cypriot musician Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou feels about there being an answer to anything.

The cover image is a detail of a 1940 photograph by Weegee entitled Crowd at Coney Island. The people in it celebrate furiously, as though this was the last chance that they would get to celebrate. I wonder how many of them survived the war that then came.

Friday, 24 June 2016

José CARRERAS, Plácido DOMINGO and Luciano PAVAROTTI: In Concert

(#413: 8 September 1990, 1 week; 22 September 1990, 4 weeks)

Track listing: È la solita storia (Lamento Di Federico)/O paradis/Recondita armonia/ Dein ist mein ganzes Herz/Core 'ngrato (Catari)/Torna a Surriento/Granada/No puede ser/Improvviso/E lucevan le stelle/Nessun dorma/Medley (Maria /Tonight/'O Paese d' 'o sole/Cielito lindo/Memory/Ochi tchorniye/Caminito/La Vie en rose/Mattinata /Wien, Wien, nur du allein/Amapola /'O sole mio)/Encores: O sole mio/Nessun dorma

(Author’s note: Carreras sings on tracks 1, 6, 8 and 10, Domingo on tracks 2, 4, 9 and 11, and Pavarotti on tracks 3, 5, 7 and 12. The medley and encores are performed by all three singers in various combinations)

The facts about this internationalist gesture first: the concert was recorded in Rome on 7 June 1990, the eve of the beginning of the Italia 90 World Cup tournament, on the outside stage of the third-century Baths of Caracalla. The three singers were backed by the orchestras of the Maggio Musicale Florentino and the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma – 198 musicians in all, under the baton of Zubin Mehta. Two Spaniards, one Italian and an Indian. Spirits were high – at one point, Pavarotti even happily high-fived Carreras as they exchanged places at the microphone, and there seems to be have been a genuine camaraderie between the trio and with the audience of six thousand, who end up singing along with the final “Nessun dorma.” The actual purpose of the concert was to raise funds for the José Carreras International Leukaemia Foundation – Carreras himself had just been successfully treated for the disease, and the event was planned with the intent of re-introducing Carreras to the musical stage. The concert was watched on television around the world by an estimated 800 million people. The night was warm with a clear, starlit sky.

Artistically the music is a mixed bag. Pavarotti continues to be the most assertive tenor of the three, but Carreras, whom Lena dubbed the concert’s “indie tenor,” might be the event’s secret star, knowing that the key to a great performance is not to try too hard. Hence his opening “È la solita storia” is a moving masterclass in emotional and technical restraint. Domingo, in contrast, sounds like what one would expect an operatic tenor to sound like; deep, dark, authoritative, somewhat rhetorical. His “E lucevan le stelle” is rather stiffer than Pavarotti’s.

The problem, however, which became really apparent while Carreras was gallivanting his way through “Granada,” is that the soupy orchestration and style of singing seemed to be drawing us back towards the earliest days of Then Play Long, the time of Rodgers and Hammerstein and throaty Drury Lane refrains. As the record progresses, we perhaps regress even further, back to the age of Caruso and Tauber and the remnants of Viennese operetta, traditional European folk songs and Victorian parlour ballads. It is as though rock ‘n’ roll never happened.

With the procession of crowd-pleasers and the endless medley of show tunes and antiquated Zarzuela – not to mention the innate absurdity of the encores; three voices, individually fine but together migraine-generating, singing songs about solitude and individual thought – I am not sure that the Three Tenors phenomenon really ended up having anything to do with music. Instead the experience is akin to listening to a series of football penalties or gymnastic exercises; each trying to outsing, go higher than or hold that high C longer than the others. It certainly has very little to do with what marketing types at the time deemed “core classical,” all the serious work which the “strategic classical” stuff (i.e. the Three Tenors, etc.) subsidised. However, it is perfectly possible for a well-balanced household to say that they like classical music yet own only this album as evidence of their liking.

But, on this Friday, the implications have now gone beyond that.

This morning I woke up in a different country, a country that was different from yesterday. A country which has made it very clear that they hate me and my family and do not want me, or us, here. A country which has sacrificed itself on the dual alters of political expediency and deeply misguided sentimentality. A country whose people are seemingly determined to drag back the clock to the early fifties, a golden age for nobody except those who were there and in retrospect. A country which once commanded respect throughout the world and is now the world’s laughing stock.

Be very clear about what I mean as a “country.” I do not mean Scotland, the warm, friendly country which welcomes everyone – Italians very much included – whose First Minister is now determined to draw up legislation to permit a second Scottish independence referendum. A First Minister, indeed, who has also spoken with our new Mayor of London about their “common cause.”

When I think of England, I do not mean London, the city in which I have lived for the last three decades and which equally came out in favour of staying in the European Union. There may also be a case for an independence referendum here; the actual city of London was very much for Remain, with only the rotten borough suburbs wanting Leave. Nor do I mean great cities I love such as Oxford and Brighton, both of whom likewise rejected calls to go it alone.

But – and I speak as both the son of an immigrant and the husband of an immigrant – I do not feel that this is “my” country any more. The people here have given way to their basest notions, encouraged by the suffocating, one-sided “news” media. A cynic might say that if people base their vote on what the leader writer of a tabloid tells them rather than their own, first-hand experience of matters, they get the kind of divisive, gerrymandering government that they deserve.

Everything good is being drained away – and I don’t just mean the estimated £350 billion that Britain’s cherished wealthy have lost in the stock market this morning. Everything that made us better – food, freedom of movement, art, people – is being snatched away in favour of perhaps the most unashamedly right-wing government that northern Europe has seen in eighty years, and I fear for the consequences. More importantly, I fear for my own safety in this country now. I fear what this country is going to become.

Don’t worry about me – by the time Boris and Michael get around to reintroducing workhouses, debtors’ prisons, ducking stools and concentration camps, I’ll most likely be six feet under, having succumbed to that dynamic double act Atrial Fibrillation and Dilated Cardiomyopathy, immediately prior to which I’ll be wondering whether the whole of life hasn’t been a waste, with everything that I was brought up at home and in school and university to believe was the right way of doing things having apparently been sneeringly smashed to pieces by dopey goofheads. And no, you don’t just carry on as before; in history and especially in Britain, that has never worked. You have to change things. Things including the stupid perception of “experts” or intelligent people generally as Walter the Softie-type easy targets. But who cares? Logic and reason have been drowned out by the loud shouts of squeaky wheels demanding their oil. A facility with words is nothing against a “saucy” YouTube vlogger. Nobody wants to publish books any more, just Celebrity Bonking Garden Nightmares. Nobody wants even to read any more, not when they can look at gaudily-coloured pictures, like cats playing with balls of wool. Dennis the Menace won.

You may reasonably wonder what any of this has to do with the Three Tenors. Speaking as someone whose idea of “the Three Tenors,” then and now, involved Sonny Rollins, Pharaoh Sanders and Archie Shepp, what I’m trying to put across is that this record goes back, quite deliberately, to the sort of world to which Britain has unaccountably returned today. A world where caps are doffed, ration books are adhered to, authority is unquestionably obeyed and teenagers don’t exist, except as Mini-Me versions of their parents. It’s not a world in which I feel comfortable living, and it is ironic that a quarter of a century down the line, it should take an enterprise like this – which never really would have happened without the European Union – to remind us of what we are suddenly so eager to forget.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

PRINCE: Music From Graffiti Bridge

(#412: 1 September 1990, 1 week)

Track listing: Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got/New Power Generation/Release It/The Question Of U/Elephants & Flowers/Round And Round/We Can Funk/Joy In Repetition/Love Machine/Tick, Tick, Bang/Shake!/Thieves In The Temple/The Latest Fashion/Melody Cool/Still Would Stand All Time/Graffiti Bridge/New Power Generation (Pt. II)

The Thursday Prince died – or at least here in Britain it was Thursday – I’d got home from work, following a long, circuitous and tedious bus journey. I still hadn’t quite computed the death of Victoria Wood and Lena greeted me grimly at the door with one word: “Prince.” No, my brain thought, not another one, in this most rotten of years; it’s too much for me to absorb.

But he had died, alone and in the elevator that led to the studio, aged fifty-seven. Yet again, the media moaned about his impertinence in dying without letting them know, but this wasn’t cancer or anything else of long standing – rather it was pills, too many painkillers, another accidental death, like Jimi Hendrix, Nick Drake and Kenneth Williams. Too few hours in any given day, still less to squander on luxuries such as rest and sleep, too much still to prove, to himself, in his otherwise uninhabited boxing ring.

There wasn’t the same level of mourning for Prince in Britain that there had been for N*t**n*l Tr*s*r* Bowie, though I know that elsewhere in the world they mourned him far more deeply. Still, there were the signs, even here; a mural in Brixton, a message on the (side of the) front sign of the Curzon Chelsea cinema.

The back catalogue, or some of it (will return to that qualification shortly), duly, or dutifully, re-entered the charts, but none of his albums went to number one – otherwise I’d have been compelled to write about him already. Hit n Run Phase Two, his “new” album, was no Blackstar, and was drowned out of the top twenty by too many other new, or newer, or more genuinely adventurous, records.

The album that did the best was The Very Best Of Prince, a 2001 compilation containing everything you’d expect, and nothing you wouldn’t; a record which quietly spelled out the real problem that people have with Prince, namely that there was nothing on it that wasn’t at least a decade old; moreover, apart from 1979’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” one song from Graffiti Bridge and four songs from Diamonds And Pearls, all of it was from the eighties.

The eighties, when you knew the name of everybody in your place of work, when you socialised with them outside of working hours, went to each other’s houses, played each other music, read each other’s books, when a city was still cheap enough to be lived and played in, when everything was still in front of you. Like their Bowie forebears, I suspect that most Prince mourners were conjuring up a requiem for their own “living” lives.

The trouble is that the eighties were when Prince “mattered.” At the beginning of the eighties hardly anyone here knew who he was – I went to his November 1981 show at the Lyceum and the place was barely half-full. The hip musician then was August Darnell, next to whose seemingly naturalistic refinement Prince might have seemed confused and overbaked (and how uncool Darnell abruptly became the following year when Kid Creole started having hits!). But I remember that I played and enjoyed Controversy – OK, maybe skipping over “Ronnie Talk To Russia” – more than I did Fresh Fruit In Foreign Places.

But then he gradually became big here, and after Purple Rain that became a lot less gradual. As with Bowie in the seventies, the eighties were Prince’s “imperial phase,” that great apex of pop music where the screamers and critics are actually in agreement about something or somebody. He threw out one WTF classic after another, again with seemingly no effort – and his experiments were happening in clear and plain view of us.

The question is: what happened at the point where The Very Best Of Prince stopped? As you’ll see, he didn’t stop having number one albums – not right away, anyway – but after “Money Don’t Matter 2Night,” there is a quarter of a century’s worth of music which largely remains unvisited territory. Yes, there were the stories of his databank of thousands and thousands of never-released classics – but once you’d snoozed your way through yet another multiple-album set of dull jazz-funk workouts, you could be forgiven for being sceptical of this.

You do wonder to yourself: he died for that stuff?

All the trimmings and presentations have been exhaustively mined with the obituaries; the sex/religion conflict, the gender question, the feeling that he probably was an old conservative stick-in-the-mud whose conservatism expired when he got back in the studio and did what he, albeit with a steadily decreasing quantity of other people, understood better than anything. It’s all there to be read and I’ve no interest in revisiting or reviving any of it.

But this tale has now reached the point, round about the beginning of the nineties, when maybe even Prince was starting to wonder a little too much whether he still had a point – whereas in the eighties he didn’t wonder; he just made his point a hundred times over, and every time different and colourful. Perhaps he found that time of times too much, too good, to let flee his grasp.

And this may explain why the vast majority of the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack is comprised of eighties outtakes – from Controversy (“Tick, Tick, Bang,” originally set aside for Vanity 6 to record) through 1999 (“Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got,” “We Are Funk”) to Parade (“The Question Of U”) – not to mention sections of (then) unreleased projects such as Dream Factory and Crystal Ball. Even “Still Would Stand With Time” was originally written for the Batman movie (it was replaced on the soundtrack by “Scandalous”).

I have to say I don’t remember ever going to a cinema to see Graffiti Bridge – and I was a very keen filmgoer back in those days (the Tube was cheap and so were cinemas; you could spend entire weekends travelling around beneath London to watch movies. Oh, you kids today don’t, cont. p. 94…); maybe it went straight to video in Britain? Either way it seems to have been as bad a movie as Prince’s other two (though the man never reached levels of such piteous depravity as Elvis, in Double Trouble, shuffling around on the back of a pick-up truck against blatant back-projected scenery interpreting “Ol’ McDonald Had A Farm”) – but who would criticise Purple Rain or Parade as being nothing more than soundtrack albums for crappy films?

I must admit to having a problem with Graffiti Bridge. It’s not the Sleeping With The Past problem of a lazy, complacent album – on the contrary, not having listened to it since 1990, I was astounded by how good and dynamic the songs sounded (perhaps it’s to their advantage that these songs have not been played to death on oldies radio). I was mentally up and bopping to anything involving The Time (“Release It,” “Love Machine,” “Shake!,” “The Latest Fashion”) – “Release It” actually does sound like something that would be played in the club at the end of the 1990 street, and matters are generally helped by factors such as Candy Dulfer, whose alto is considerably and agreeably freer and more bad-tempered than on “Lily Was Here.” As for Prince’s own stuff, initially my view was one of renewed astonishment. “The Question Of U” has him making like a French Associates. "New Power Generation" is as relentlessly and imposingly catchy and determined a march of principles as “Rhythm Nation.”

Then, about half an hour after listening to the record, I found I could hardly remember any of its seventeen songs. I think I was lukewarm at the time because “Thieves In The Temple” was that extreme rarity, a less than compelling trailer single. It still sounds bewildering and pointless to me, but at least I remembered it from twenty-six years ago. But his repeated “don’t stop”s on the opening “Don’t Stop” sound like George Michael impersonating Prince, and from its clunky title inwards, “Still Would Stand All Time” is a pale lagoon of a shadow of his great eighties ballads. And that’s not just sentimental nostalgia; the Prince everybody cherishes, still, is the one who made those world-beating/fucking records in the eighties. Look for “Prince lyrics” in Google and it’s all “When Doves Cry,” “Purple Rain,” “Little Red Corvette” etc.

I think that Prince did for my generation what Bowie did for his, that is to say, create a great kaleidoscopic soup of every great record that he just happened to hear and have them all play at once, only be better than that. But even with the most sympathetic ear, there is a feeling with Graffiti Bridge that there is very little in the way of catchiness on offer. I can remember and even sing records like Purple Rain and Sign "" The Times from first note to last thirty-odd years after they came out, down to things like “The Beautiful Ones” and “Adore” – but thirty-odd minutes after listening to Graffiti Bridge it’s a question of: huh? and what?

Even the guest singers perform as though they’ve been cut-and-paste onto Prince’s two-dimensional universal jigsaw puzzle. Tevin Campbell and Mavis Staples could sing each other’s parts without any detriment to the songs, except that Staples sounds increasingly vexed at having to do this. As for “We Are Funk,” George Clinton is supposed to be co-lead vocalist and co-writer, but you’d scarcely know he was there – he lurks around in the song’s sidebars, like a grumpy caged lion placed next to an office party in a Sloane Square restaurant.

Neither can it be a simple question of overabundance. Sign "" The Times was a longer and better record, and moreover a true double album; Graffiti Bridge seems, like an increasing quantity of “double” albums at the time, to be tailored for the extended requirements of the compact disc. Moreover, whereas Sign "" The Times had a terrific cover, all solemn neons and yellows and a worried-looking, bespectacled Prince lurking in the bottom right-hand corner, Graffiti Bridge’s cover is appalling, like a Woolworth’s budget-priced Prince Of Pop! compilation.

Don’t get me wrong; trim all the fillers off the record and you get a fine and adventurously funky thirty-eight minutes or so, just as you could probably compile a couple of knock-‘em-dead CD compilations of his post-eighties work, even if, like Van Morrison’s trademark one brilliant song per routine album routine, finding the jewels became increasingly tougher work. If you’re a devout Prince fan, you’ll love it. There is plenty here that is stimulating and adventurous (even the “Jimmy JAM!” chants on “The Latest Fashion,” together with its author’s maniacal cackle to top and tail the same song). But I note that this album, though a number one, stayed on our charts for only eight weeks. For fans only, and that’s where Lena’s theory comes in – it was particularly palpable during the closing “New Power Generation” reprise – of the Church of Prince being a place which, if you are a member, know his ways inside and out and are unquestionably loyal to his greatness forever, you will continue to understand and get what he is doing. To non-believers, however, it may have become a little too baffling. This is now the era of the connoisseur’s Prince – one for Nick Clegg to tick off, perhaps. But we couldn’t help noticing the end-credits blandness of the closing title song and thinking…this could be off an Elton John album. Somehow I do not think that this is what “Something In The Water Does Not Compute” was working towards.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Elton JOHN: Sleeping With The Past

(#411: 28 July 1990, 5 weeks)

Track listing: Durban Deep/Healing Hands/Whispers/Club At The End Of The Street/Sleeping With The Past/Stone’s Throw From Hurtin’/Sacrifice/I Never Knew Her Name/Amaze Me/Blue Avenue

Elton John number one albums, eh? You wait nearly sixteen years and then two come at once. Admittedly one of those is a major retrospective, so I will leave it to Lena to discuss what the great man had been up to in the interim, while the other was a hangover from the end of August 1989. Both “Sacrifice” and “Healing Hands” had been issued separately as singles without much success, but in the spring of 1990 Steve Wright, then a Radio 1 DJ, began to play “Sacrifice”; demand picked up, both songs were reissued as a double A-side with royalties to be donated to various Aids charities, and this unexpectedly became Elton’s first British number one solo single in almost twenty years of trying.

The belated, triple-platinum success of the parent album is entirely ascribable to this, rather than being the first album written by John and Taupin from start to finish since Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy. Indeed Bernie seems to have got a little above himself; the sleeve announces that all songs were written by “ELTON JOHN and TAUPIN,” indicating that the lyricist had of late been elevated to the House of Lords. Worse is the fact that in the photograph of the two on the sleeve, Taupin looks exactly like me, except (a) I would never look so smug in a photograph and (b) I would never wear leather jeans.

On the sleeve we also find the message “These songs were inspired by the Soul pioneers of the Sixties and Seventies, whose music meant so much to us,” and I don’t blame you if you’re falling asleep already. All due respect to Otis, Sam, Marvin and the rest, but they were about the last people I wanted to listen to in ’89-90, reduced to a teacher’s homework-commanding blackboard pointer. Not that there is much evidence of their influence, as such, on these ten songs. One can see how the opening “Durban Deep” could have been extemporised from a starting point of Lee Dorsey’s “Working In A Coalmine” but its harsh guitars and dub-ish echoes suggest a more pressing familiarity with The Clash’s Sandinista! This is the obligatory anti-apartheid song but rather than protest, it focuses on the travails of a slave miner working in an apartheid-era goldmine.

I am not saying that Elton went all New Wave with this album. Indeed it probably could have done with a direct inject anti-digital gloss ray-gun. “Sacrifice” and “Healing Hands” are good songs – the former, in particular, is one of the bitterest break-up songs pop has known – but their impact is severely diminished by the spotless, look-no-hands arrangements. Perhaps the wine bar tinkling of “Sacrifice” was the song’s point, but “Healing Hands” in this context sounds like an early Lion King demo. The artful delicacy of a Gus Dudgeon is missed.

Far from being a “Soul” tribute album – never trust anyone who capitalises their music genres – this is essentially a break-up album, a slightly meatier variant on the Phil Collins template. Elton had divorced from Renata in 1988 – one of the most inadvisable weddings in pop history, that – and realised that he was happier being gay. So there is not much of the lovelorn about “Sacrifice” and even less to grab the listener in such romps as “I Never Knew Her Name” and “Blue Avenue.” Taupin’s lyrics are generally as dreadful as you would expect but the songs themselves are largely below par. The interminable “Club At The End Of The Street” is no “Crocodile Rock” and the most unfortunate thing about the record as a whole is that, in 1990, it already sounded dated. The one really good song here is “Whispers,” which plays with patient beauty like the Pet Shop Boys’ less funny uncle (“Promise me everything except a blue night/Shudder like ice in cut crystal glass”).

As a marker of its era, Sleeping With The Past stands as a bridge between Elton's unremembered eighties and a new decade of being pop's Number One Moral Public Citizen. Generally, though, this is pseudo-nostalgic comfort food for babyboomers; the “Sixties” and “Seventies” with all the awkward bits (excitement, originality, fun) taken out. I looked to see who was responsible for this icy production, and it was – Chris Thomas. Does anybody remember what they did in the eighties, and why? And yes, falling asleep to it is what I nearly did. "You can't sit still," sings a hopeful Elton, but I found it the easiest thing on Earth to do.

Sunday, 19 June 2016


(#410: 30 June 1990, 1 week)

Track listing: Step By Step/Tonight/Baby I Believe In You/Call It What You Want/Let’s Try It Again/Happy Birthday/Games/Time Is On Our Side/Where Do I Go From Here?/Stay With Me Baby/Funny Feeling/Never Gonna Fall In Love Again

Here – at least far as this tale is concerned – is the initial carving of the pathway that would lead to that most singular of post-eighties pop phenomena, the boy band. This album’s predecessor, Hangin’ Tough, the one with Marky Mark and all the hits you’ve heard of, was held at number two by ...But Seriously.

While it is remarkable, and possibly unique, for a group of white boys to be overseen by a black Svengali (Maurice Starr, who pretty much does everything here, although I’m sure that readers will rush to correct my assumption), Step By Step is, by and large, unremarkable. I thought about writing about it in tandem with good music that came out of Boston in 1990, but Bossanova, which came out about two months after Step By Step, was disappointing to me even then (whereas Pod, the first Breeders album which came out three weeks before Step By Step, is a much better “Pixies” record and confirmed my suspicion that Kim Deal was the group’s real genius).

There really is nothing much to say about these dozen, largely listless songs. The title song is agreeable, faintly muscular teenpop, “Games” is quite fun for its Toytown rapping, a bit like a Junior Showtime Stetasonic, while “Tonight” sticks out because it’s so bloody weird, a melange of late-sixties Genuine Imitation Life Gazette post-psychedelic baroque pop which in its chorus inexplicably turns into an ELO song.

Other than that, however, this is routine sub-pop gloop.  On ballads like “Let’s Try It Again” they attempt to be the Stylistics, but Starr is no Thom Bell. Fifties throwback “Happy Birthday” would have been rejected by The Stargazers for being too square. As for Donnie Wahlberg’s ghastly attempt at a Jamaican accent – in 1990 – on “Stay With Me Baby,” the less said, the better.

Two things to note are that, had it not been for dopey Donnie at the bottom, the cover shot might have been of a Scottish indiepop band circa 1983; and that this album spawned no less than five top twenty singles, all of which I struggled to remember. I regret to say that it left the way open for the many undistinguished boy bands who would follow in their forlorn trail. And yet, a year later, it was essentially all over.  Amidst the multiple acknowledgments on the sleeve is the group’s tribute to Maurice Starr: “Love ya, buddy! P.S.: You got $20?” Why do I think that rings truer than was probably intended?