Thursday, 3 September 2015

ERASURE: Wild!


(#400: 28 October 1989, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Piano Song – Instrumental/Blue Savannah/Drama!/How Many Times?/Star/La Gloria/You Surround Me/Brother And Sister/2,000 Miles/Crown Of Thorns/Piano Song

Another landmark TPL number, and maybe it is time to pause and take stock of where the eighties, as this tale knows it, are going. Mention has previously been made of things going full circle and back to 1980, and it has to be said that, as in that year, many of its number one albums sound like the last album that will ever be made, although the overriding concern is perhaps not so much apocalypse as the multiple problems of relationships, and if and how man and woman connect.

Time, however, and as also mentioned before, is quickly running out. In the big albums of this period there is a very real sense of the last chance saloon, the final opportunity to have a say before a New Age, of whatever stripe, comes to pass, and Erasure are no exception.

I have no idea who or what inspired the title Wild! – unless it’s a sneaky reference to Oscar – but the fourth Erasure album is a dramatic improvement on their third, far more focused, catchier/more singable, more poignant and more downright fun to listen to.

It begins, unsettlingly, with a slow, standard piano sequence which is soon invaded by odd tonalities (a clear pointer to future voices like Plone and Plaid). This in turn fades out – we’ll get back to it later – in order to usher in “Blue Savannah,” always one of my absolute favourite Erasure songs, its desert romance fantasy underscored by that autumnal air (the way voices and sounds echo back on each other) which I always find attractive in pop. With its “Sealand” synthesisers and piano cascades, the song is rather like a cross between early OMD and Michel Polnareff and I wish Elvis had lived to cover it (even if to slow it down to “Beyond The Reef” speed). The unresolved harmonies which take the song out (the repeated “to you only”s) are achingly moving.

But Erasure can be as joyfully bitchy as they are affecting. “Drama!” is terrific accusatory pop with great gusty yells of “GUILTY!” courtesy of the Jesus and Mary Chain, who were in the adjoining studio working on Darklands (and TPL has perhaps undervalued guest stars on songs; did you know that Peter Frampton plays lead guitar on Frankie Valli’s “Grease” or that Mark Knopfler appears on “She Means Nothing To Me”?). Likewise, “Brother And Sister” and “2,000 Miles” are enjoyable romps through family and relationship traumas.

When they slow down, Andy Bell’s deep register can sound surprisingly (or not so surprisingly) like David Sylvian, for example on “How Many Times?,” although this song also carries a distinctly Bryan Ferry-ish air of affluent melancholy (“Will I regret the chances taken?/Why do I end up always the one who is mistaken?”), or on the slowly-smouldering “You Surround Me.”

In contrast, “Star” is a cheery thrust through impending apocalypse and religious hucksters on TV. The cod-flamenco of “La Gloria” (possibly with Ms Estefan in mind?) also sounds like it was a riot to make. Its overall good humour is one of the things which makes Wild! immeasurably better than The Seeds Of Love; you do feel that this is basically Vince and Andy all the way through, just the two of them, bouncing ideas off each other, and that no celebrity guests or florid arrangements are required.

Then, however, we arrive at the two closing songs, and “Crown Of Thorns” is a scathing denunciation of somebody we can only assume is Thatcher (“Light in her eyes pours black on their lives,” “Her name burned into his brow/Scorn in her eyes/Her back to the cries”) and how “old England” is being allowed to bleed to death. This is the late eighties, there is a big disease with a little name; it does not take much guesswork to identify the source of the duo’s rage.

The closing song I will return to in good time, but it did occur to me that if we are to take this record into account – and given that those cries of “GUILTY!” echo the ones in “Waking The Witch” - we must also try to pair it with the record that it kept at number two:



On balance it is easy to see why the Erasure album prevailed; they had an absolutely devoted and loyal hardcore fanbase and Mute’s promotional department were completely on the ball (perhaps learning from Rough Trade’s mistakes with The Smiths). But Wild! is a far more assimilable and easily digestible record than The Sensual World. Those in search of a second Hounds Of Love were always going to be disappointed; this has no easily discernible running storyline and no catchy “Running Up That Hill” equivalent to hang onto as a hook. The nearest thing to the latter is the title song, but great as it is, it was never going to be a number one.

The strange thing about the song “The Sensual World” is that, rather like another number one album from the other end of 1989, it is a marked contrast to the songs which follow it; or they may be one long, aching song divided into nine or ten parts. Here Bush finds sexual happiness and fulfilment, but is this really happening or is she merely experiencing it in the course of reading Ulysses?

The album initially does not appear to answer that question readily. Instead it explores different dimensions of relationships between man and woman, whether it be personal break-up (“Love And Anger”) or watching what her parents are doing (“Between A Man And A Woman”) and it would appear that the artist is experiencing extreme difficulty relating to any of it.

This may in great part be down to residual fear; and so “The Fog” may be the record’s key song, with her father (played by her father himself – Bush was now thirty) tentatively encouraging her to swim. But she is afraid to let go, and this fear emerges again when faced with its antithesis, the reckless woman ready to tie a firework and fire herself off Waterloo Bridge in “Rocket’s Tail.” Fear of commitment, fear of being required to formulate herself as a unique individual – who knows, but elsewhere there are implanted memories of dancing, or not dancing, with Hitler (“Heads We’re Dancing”), or what sounds like Gable in Gone With The Wind, with the burning cornfields and so forth (“Never Be Mine”). On the latter song she makes her desire explicit – “I want you as the dream,” she sings, “not the reality,” possibly knowing that the real Clark Gable would simply have disappointed her.

But on “Deeper Understanding” she falls in love with her computer, at the expense of parental care. None of this is making her complete as a person, and I note her attachment to “the thrill and the hurting” in “Never Be Mine.” Then again, when she partially re-recorded four of these songs for 2011’s Director’s Cut, who should be the voice of the computer but her not-yet-born son Albert.

Like The Seeds Of Love, one does feel that the ornateness gets in the way of expressing something very basic. All sorts of then-modish liberal arts types pop up throughout the record, including Nigel Kennedy, Mick Karn, Michael Nyman and Eberhard Weber, as well as the more expected David Gilmour. For me, however, only the Trio Bulgarka, who appear on three songs, make the transition from look-at-my-cool-record-collection status; frequently they argue with and sometimes overpower the singer, and at the horrifically jubilant climax of “Rocket’s Tail” they join in with the yells of “KICK IT! KICK IT!” (hinting at “Kick It In,” and yes, John Giblin is duly present on bass).

And then there is “This Woman’s Work,” which is simply Kate, her multiple voices and piano, and Michael Kamen’s patient and sympathetic strings. It is always helpful to remember that this was originally written for the 1988 film She’s Having A Baby, starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern, and plays over its most heart-rending sequence. Because this song is not at root about some residual imbalance between expectations and reality; it is actually the bookend song to “Breathing” since once again she is about to give birth and she is encouraging the new to be born (“I know you have a little life in you left”). At the same time, however, she cannot help but recall her life until now with its trail of unsaid things and undone deeds and roads never taken (because what is to become of the father? There are so many other bass players on this record, and he himself is present, if not all the time). Part of her wants that tentative child in her back, while the other is trying to break through physical and emotional pain. The strings rise to crescendo, the multiple Bushes howl their way towards a scream, and then a final, ambiguous whisper: “Just make it go away, now.”

It is a magnificent performance and also how the record was supposed to end. Both CD and cassette editions carried an eleventh song, the indecisive happy ending of “Walk Straight Down The Middle,” but if we are to twin this record with the one by Erasure, then we have to admit that the common denominator is indeed love and anger; both the love of anger and the process of being angry at love.

And so it is back to “Piano Song,” a far from straightforward but almost as moving an album closer. Bell sings it as though counting down his final seconds. He is sitting alone, somewhere, getting older, being talked to like a child (tellingly the song’s opening line is “Never get angry at the stupid people”) but knows that his time is running out. He cannot quite recall “the consciousness of me and you.” He stares at the window and sees only his own face, his own eyes. “What hurts me most,” he sings or murmurs repeatedly, “I’ll never see your eyes again.” His lover’s eyes, or his own eyes? He is dying (“The harder it gets,” “Though I get weary”) but the cause of his dying is fairly easily spelled out (“My body belies me, I’m of fertile mind”). Before the song ends, his mind is starting to atomise – “I try to forget…I’ll never see your eyes again…I can’t recollect…” This song stares the elephant in the 1989 living room right in its eye.

And we have not even reached the terminal beach of 1989. Yet.

Next: The end of the line.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Kylie MINOGUE: Enjoy Yourself





(#399: 21 October 1989, 1 week)

Track listing: Hand On Your Heart/Wouldn’t Change A Thing/Never Too Late/Nothing To Lose/Tell Tale Signs/My Secret Heart/I’m Over Dreaming (Over You)/Tears On My Pillow/Heaven And Earth/Enjoy Yourself

Have you noticed how long it’s taking to get out of the eighties? A seemingly unending procession of one-week wonders; does this signify everybody rushing to get their word in before the decade expires or foresee the quick-change, short-term future where spending more than one week at the top becomes something remarkable?

I can reveal that we have another four albums to go before we can enter the nineties, and the second Kylie album is the first of them. “Wouldn’t Change A Thing”? If I were that kind of critic, I’d make a cryptic remark about how many pop operatives could have that statement serve as their epitaph and leave the review there.

But although it isn’t at all obvious from looking at the charts of the period, SAW were now past their imperial phase and entering a slow decline. One could listen to Kylie singing “You can’t keep me hanging on/Now the magic’s gone” (“I’m Over Dreaming”) or “I don’t really wanna be the one/To tell you time is running out” (“Heaven And Earth”) and directing these words, “Winner Takes It All”-style, at the people who wrote them.

The truth is that by late 1989 SAW were finding Kylie and Jason something of a hindrance. As they were, at that time, still actors as well as pop stars, they had to jet back and forth to and from Australia to film Neighbours and so, rather than the old free-for-all Hit Factory set-up, the team were now finding themselves obliged to tailor their schedules in order to fit Kylie and Jason in, and perhaps it wasn’t as much fun any more; certainly many of these songs, both musically and lyrically, suggest an air of mounting exhaustion. Nor was there really anybody coming up to challenge Kylie and Jason – Rick Astley had gone, Bananarama were slowly winding down, Mel Appleby was receiving treatment for cancer (the Reynolds Girls’ “I’d Rather Jack” had been written with a view to Mel and Kim recording it), Donna Summer had gone back to the States (and thus a full album of songs which had been written with her in mind was eventually given over to Lonnie Gordon) and while new acts like Sonia and Big Fun were perfectly reasonable, they lacked the clout of the old SAW guard.

Enjoy Yourself isn’t really a rerun of the first Kylie album, although to call it perfunctory would not be an overstatement – it clocks in at just under thirty-three minutes – and that doesn’t mean it’s any good. It is true that from around track four on, Kylie gets tired with being pop’s number one doormat – I am afraid that “Never Too Late” reminds me of the late Leslie Crowther on Saturday evening television (“It’s NEVER TOO LATE, the star prize could STILL BE YOURS if THE PRICE IS RIGHT!”) – and spends much of the rest of the record arguing back and eventually walking out. In addition, it’s not that these songs are rubbish, as such; there is some evidence of musical development (those heart-catchingly unexpected chord changes in “Wouldn’t Change A Thing” and “I’m Over Dreaming”), and 2012’s The Abbey Road Sessions showed both “Hand On Your Heart” and “Never Too Late” to be readily adaptable to other musical forms, although I remain unconvinced that Kylie didn’t simply swap one type of Muzak for another.

Back in 1989, however, everything is subjected to the same gloopy pop cement mixer treatment, the main difference from its predecessor being that, instead of boring AoR soul plods, we now get a string of horrendous MoR ballads with Fairlight string and brass sections and a general air of Petula Clark on BBC1 circa 1971. By the time we reach the obligatory pre-Beatles cover version (Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Tears On My Pillow”) it is easy to wonder whether this is the kind of thing a twenty-one-year-old woman acting the role of a pop singer should be doing; moreover, it feels as if she has already embarked on the path to 2012 and Abbey Road.

If you consider the song which displaced the single of “Tears On My Pillow” at number one in early 1990 to be a pivotal turning point – see entry #404 for further thoughts on that – then in late 1989 there were far more palpable signs that pop was changing. It might or might not be an overstatement to say that the simultaneous appearance of the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays in the charts and on Top Of The Pops marks the point where everything shifted, but it was abundantly clear, even to a spectator, that the SAW way really wasn’t going to work any more; not when the realer-sounding alternative was readily available. There really isn’t much else to say about Enjoy Yourself except that the closing title song is the most forced, least persuasive song about having fun that we may ever have heard; her periodic yelps and whoops throughout the song sound as though goaded by a cattle prod.

But around this time she met this guy called Michael, and began the painful process of growing up.

Next: The four hundredth number one album. What is it? Take a wild guess.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Tracy CHAPMAN: Crossroads





(#398: 14 October 1989, 1 week)

Track listing: Crossroads/Bridges/Freedom Now/Material World/Be Careful Of My Heart/Subcity/Born To Fight/A Hundred Years/This Time/All That You Have Is Your Soul

“Angry punk rock” is not a description anyone would normally make of Tracy Chapman but it’s certainly the one which springs most readily to mind when listening to her second album. Not that this is especially evident in the music, which by and large remains the same as before; smooth, expensive-sounding AoR performed by LA rep reliables like Larry Klein, Russ Kunkel and Danny Kortchmar.

But the listener’s attention is seldom distracted from Chapman’s voice, sundry guitars and words, all of which present a far less assimilable picture than her debut; indeed the opening title song begins with a direct accusation aimed at her audience – “All you folks think you own my life/But you never made any sacrifice” – and of anybody expecting a nice addendum to their Token Liberal Folk record of the previous year.

It is evident that Chapman’s abrupt rise to fame was not really anticipated and that she is now uncomfortable with its consequences. Hence “Crossroads” the song angrily inverts the old Robert Johnson demon metaphors, where she turns the Devil down and announces “I say all you demons go back to hell” (of those who “say I should be willing to compromise”), concluding, “I’ll save my soul, save myself.”

I am grateful for the multilingual lyric sheet which comes with the album since I would have real difficulty discerning what Chapman has to say; frequently she elides words together, or slurs them like John Martyn, or gives semi-staccato roars which remind me of no one less than John Lydon. It’s like a code of self-defence which she has set up; if you want to penetrate it, you have to understand her - the Mandela-themed “Freedom Now” discards diplomacy in favour of demands (“Give the man release! Go and set your conscience free!”) while “Material World” is an anti-capitalist diatribe (“Call it upward mobility/But you’ve been sold down the river/Just another form of slavery/And the whole-man-made white world/Is your master” – is this Tracy C or Chuck D?).

“Subcity,” about an underground community of the displaced, has sadly not dated a bit (“I’d like to give Mr President my honest regards/For disregarding me”). “Born To Fight” is a menacing and forthright declaration of independence, Chapman’s voice nicely echoed by veteran jazz trumpeter Snooky Young’s wah-wah moans.

The love songs – if they can be described as such – offer no refuge. In place of “Baby Can I Hold You” there’s the justifiably bitter “Be Careful With My Heart”; the growing resentment in the closing moments of “Fast Car” comes to fruition in the grave echoes of “This Time,” while on “Bridges” and “A Hundred Years,” she’ll say yes only under strict conditions.

The record closes with the slow and stately “All That You Need Is Your Soul” where Chapman looks back at the ramifications of her initial impact and resolves to begin again (“Here I am, waiting for a better day/A second chance”). Behind her, Neil Young provides empathetic piano and acoustic guitar. The song patiently winds down, and we realise that we are staring at the ghost of a space previously occupied by “Rockin’ In The Free World.” Little wonder that many fled the bus at this point, or (if they were critics) misunderstood it without really listening to it. But, as this decade comes to an end and the clamour of voices reaches a crescendo, this is a quiet but deadly and deeply felt protest, for her people, her life, her soul. Lyrically, little of it would sound out of place on Nation Of Millions or Black Planet. It demands your attention again, or possibly for the first time.

Next: Another pop phenomenon slowing down with its end in sight – or is it another doorway?

Sunday, 30 August 2015

TEARS FOR FEARS: The Seeds Of Love






(#397: 7 October 1989, 1 week)

Track listing: Woman In Chains/Badman’s Song/Sowing The Seeds Of Love/Advice For The Young At Heart/Standing On The Corner Of The Third World/Swords And Knives/Year Of The Knife/Famous Last Words

“Whatever the dream, I unearth, by work, taxing work, and even by a kind of prayer, I am sure to find a thumbprint in the corner, a malicious detail to the right of centre, a bodiless midair Cheshire cat grin, which shows the whole work to be gotten up by the genius of Johnny Panic, and him alone. He’s sly, he’s subtle, he’s sudden as thunder, but he gives himself away only too often. He simply can’t resist melodrama. Melodrama of the oldest, most obvious variety.”
(Sylvia Plath, “Johnny Panic and the Bible Of Dreams”)

Songs From The Big Chair doesn’t appear in this tale because it was kept at number two by No Jacket Required. Four years, four producers and nine studios later who should be playing drums on “Woman In Chains” but Phil Collins. It is best not to dwell on this or many of the other attendant ironies surrounding this irritatingly unsatisfactory record. “Irritatingly” because I know, appreciate and understand what Tears For Fears were trying to pull off, but for me it just doesn’t work.

I rather liked the first two Tears For Fears albums, despite (or because of?) being told by the music press that they were terminally unhip; I don’t think the British music press in particular have ever forgiven them for not being Julian Cope (still, when you put The Seeds Of Love up against the vaudeville acid baths of the contemporaneous Skellington, I know which I prefer to listen to). I applauded their urge to fix Joy Division and Robert Wyatt as two interdependent stars in a unique constellation and the songs spoke to me in ways that Prince Charles and the City Beat Band and Jason and the Scorchers didn’t (nothing against those two, by the way; it’s just the way it was).

You have already heard from Lena about what an impact The Hurting made on the disenfranchised young Americans of the early eighties who would eventually become Generation X; here we generally took it as a post-Closer variant on the old Bobby Rydell nobody-understands-me pop angst which has appealed to multiple generations. It is also not farfetched to suggest that the Beatles’ “Help!” leads eventually to “Shout”; if nobody’s going to answer us, we have to figure out the answer and scream it ourselves.

But with The Seeds Of Love I suspect that this meant infinitely more to American audiences than it did to British ones. The sort-of-title song and lead single did better there (number two on Billboard) than here (a rather grudging number five; as far as this song’s ambitions are concerned, it might as well have peaked at number ninety-five) and it is down to American voices, be they Oleta Adams or Jon Hassell, to electrify the album.

Again, I have to take my hat off to the duo for earnestly not wanting to repeat their earlier work, though fear that “earnestly” is the fatal adverb here.  From the Prince-as-Selfridge’s-window-display cover in, I remember wanting this record to be great, a knockout, fuck-you-hipsters masterpiece.

Above all, I wanted “Sowing The Seeds Of Love” to be a phenomenally great pop single. But it falls short, so much so that its failure in itself makes it almost admirable. A dissonant anti-Thatcher rant set against an all-stops-pulled-out attempt to bring 1967 back, a song which draws some subtle lines between the utopia of then and the devil-take-the-hindmost spivvery of 1989 now (the subtext being that the Acid/rave “industry” was at bottom line Thatcherism taken to its logically illegal conclusion)? What could go wrong?

It didn’t help of course that British radio was still commanded by a bunch of people – and also perhaps their audience - desperate to wind the clock back twenty-two years and who saw “Sowing” as manna from Penny Lane. But it isn’t just the fact that at this point we had people like Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, kids going Radio Rentals to “I Am The Resurrection” (and “Elizabeth My Dear” is a far more pointed and menacing attack on the Establishment), in which context the returning TFF seemed almost laughingly old hat.

Given the involvement of people like Richard Niles and the opera soprano samples, one could even draw a line between this song and “Left To My Own Devices.” But the Pet Shop Boys have always sounded like naturals. On “Sowing” you can sense the duo pulling every sinew, huffing and puffing in the effort to make it work. But things like the Dukes of Stratosphear don’t sound effortful; songs like “25 O’Clock” and “You’re A Good Man Albert Brown” simply do the retro-psychedelic thing better. Likewise, although I know that Nick Nicely sweated and strained for many months to get “Hilly Fields (1892)” right, on listening to the record he sounds like he’s being psychedelic without even having to think about it.

Still, this is the only one of eight songs which sticks in the mind, and I note it’s also the only one of eight songs in which Curt Smith gets a co-writing credit, as opposed to five songs co-written by Roland Orzabal with former Ravishing Beauties keyboard player Nicky Holland. Despite the cover, one frequently forgets that Curt is on the record at all, whereas its two predecessors were clearly products of two minds working together.

Despite the alleged urge to make a “small”-sounding album, The Seeds Of Love sounds big in all the wrong ways; big as in pretentious, over-embellished, laborious, oxygen squeezed out. The listener may wonder at the supporting cast, most of whom seem to be drawn from the floating crap game of session players used on so many of this decade’s number ones – Manu Katch√©, Robbie McIntosh, Pino Palladino – with the odd wild card (Peter Hope-Evans, half of Medicine Head, one of TFF’s true if far less stressed predecessors, turns up playing harmonica on “Third World”), and the accompanying sub-Gabriel gloss – side two really is a dull listen – and question whether this is all covering up an absence.

Oleta Adams, who supposedly represented everything TFF wanted to return or change to, does strikingly well – her entry on “Woman In Chains” frankly makes you wonder why Orzabal bothered to start singing the song, and her jazz piano coda to “Badman’s Song” is musically the album’s best moment – but she’s not there all the time. Elsewhere, things like “Advice For The Young At Heart” at best got me thinking how much the music sounded like Nick Heyward’s North Of A Miracle, but generally this is a grievously over-produced stew.

The preponderance of swords and knives on side two also got us thinking; Lena reminded me of the Mahjong card game strategy where, if you pulled a knot followed by a sword or knife, it implied that the knot would be cut. And so it seems to me that the last three songs of Seeds in particular are less about the state of the world and much more about a connection being cut, namely that between Roland and Curt. I note the choreographed staging of peaks in “Year Of The Knife” – all the better for large stadium crowds, although annoyingly the closing drum eruption is uncredited – following which “Famous Last Words” slowly dwindles to a faintly ominous drone as Orzabal sings about the depletion of the ozone layer, saints marching in, etc. (Hassell briefly reappears, but this is no “Brilliant Trees”), and then the decade, or the world, or Tears For Fears, ends for good.

Now, I am fully aware that there were young minds, particularly in late eighties America, who took this deadly seriously and came to prominence in the following decades. I am aware that influence is not a simple one-lane highway, that music trends tend to boomerang back into contention with each subsequent generation; hence the ridiculous suggestion of Danny Kelly – was that man ever right about anything? – in his NME review of Big Chair that this was an expensive folly that would be swept away by an unspecified oncoming tidal wave of musical revolution (his comparison with 10cc’s The Original Soundtrack, which certainly has never been swept away or been forgotten, makes his assertion all the more ludicrous) can be quickly dismissed.

But it isn’t just that Seeds is over-earnest and over-prepared, that it lacks sparkle or humour of any kind. Its central problem lies with the fourth of the four bonus tracks appended to the album’s 1999 CD reissue. This is “Johnny Panic And The Bible Of Dreams,” originally a B-side to the “Advice For The Young At Heart” single – and suddenly the album springs into mischievous life. Featuring a distressed-sounding gospel refrain and the lyrics rapped by one Biti Strauchn, it actually provides the album with its raison d’etre, since it very cleverly draws a line between ’67 and ’89 ways of hearing and feeling, suggesting that one approach is as valid as the other, not to mention confirming that Orzabal actually knew damn well what time it was. It sounds as if it had been cobbled together in five minutes and it is genius. Why it didn’t go on the end of the original album, or why the original album wasn’t more like this, is not explicable. But then we must remember that the Plath story in the first instance was about somebody who is driven mad by obsession with detail, by prioritising the dream over the dreamer.

Next: the second coming of consciousness, or conscience?

Friday, 28 August 2015

Tina TURNER: Foreign Affair




(#396: 30 September 1989, 1 week)

Track listing: Steamy Windows/The Best/You Know Who (Is Doing You Know What)/Undercover Agent For The Blues/Look Me In The Heart/Be Tender With Me Baby/You Can’t Stop Me Loving You/Ask Me How I Feel/Falling Like Rain/I Don’t Wanna Lose You/Not Enough Romance/Foreign Affair

In the last week of September 1989, two albums by leading black female artists were released. I don’t really know whether it is possible to find any meaningful link between the two but some may yawn that, yet again, the lesser of the two was the one to make it to the top. Not that anyone should yawn at Tina Turner, somebody who has lived through things so horrible that even Annie Lennox could never imagine them; I can’t think of anybody else who better deserves to be an international pop star, or brand, whose name they know how to spell in Vladivostok.

She sprang back into life five years before with Private Dancer and then, like Presley in Vegas, settled down for maximal tourist/hotel lobby appeal. Indeed the snapshots on the cover of Foreign Affair suggest a jetsetter who can go anywhere and do anything. Sashay up the Eiffel Tower? No problem! Look at the Herb Ritts centrespread and you might wonder how much of this the eight-year-old Beyoncé took in.

So Tina earned her global fame, and much of this, the third studio album of her “second” career, caters to the global market with a practised expertise which makes the Madonna and Whitney of that period sound jejeune (as I am sure was the intention). Still, she could hardly be said to be happy; in song after song (the titles speak for themselves) her voice tears through the bland music (the panpipe keyboards dotted throughout are particularly irritating) with hurt, rage and sometimes (the ending of “Be Tender With Me Baby,” with just an acoustic guitar to cushion her) blood, as if she is fighting against the eighties, wanting to smash the affluent glass ceiling. One is continually reminded who might be on her mind while she sings these songs.

She is markedly happier away from the Albert Hammond/Holly Knight/etc. Hits 4U machine (“The Best,” a cover of a song first recorded the year before by Bonnie Tyler, is for me far too redolent of bad MBA seminars to work – David Brent was only confirming what some of us already knew – although for co-writer Mike Chapman it must have been the biggest payday of his career) and working with Tony Joe White (his friend Mark Knopfler got him the gig). With four songs on the album, including the patiently melancholy title track, this represented a major revival in White’s career – the swamp man was never going to go disco – and Tina sounds far more relaxed and involved. “Steamy Windows” is sensual without having to have it underlined; her vocal performance on “Undercover Agent” is a masterclass in using the voice to act out a story, with its multiple pauses, slurs, squeals, hisses and scatting, all of which are as carefully placed as any of Nicholson Baker’s commas. “You Know Who…” is nicely modernistic (only Tina could sing “devastated MEEEEEE!!”), and the closing title song, with Knopfler providing his best guitar work in several years, is superficially fast but hugely slow-paced in its central resigned lament, which concludes with a devilish cackle from the singer to fadeout.

It’s just that this also came out that week, and peaked at number four, beneath Tina, the Eurythmics and Gloria Estefan (have we said that TPL 1989 is essentially the women’s story?):



I think Rhythm Nation represents the point where I finally lost faith in the music press, British or American. It had a deadingly indifferent critical reception and you may search the end-of-year critics’ polls for it in vain – it only appears in Christgau’s list. A lot of alleged critics yawned in a it’s-not-1986-anymore manner – as though titans like The Wonder Stuff and Mega City 4 were up to the minute – but really it taught me that the primary function of music “criticism” was to big up your friends and your old favourites, and that the big-uppers were predominantly, and suffocatingly, male and white.

Because Rhythm Nation was the year’s best and deepest pop record. As soon as the martial crunch-down supersedes the abstract electronic miasma and launches into the titanic title track you are immediately roused to get up and dance, or at least shake a fist, in the same way that the opening credits sequence of Do The Right Thing dares you to stay seated (still one of the most exhilarating cinematic experiences of my life, watching that on opening night at the Ritzy in Brixton with its predominantly black audience, all rising up to dance to “Fight The Power,” arguing back with the actors all the way through the movie, generating internal debates). P-Funk, yes, a Sly Stone sample, yes – thank you falettin’ Janet be herself again - but absolutely, overwhelmingly and triumphantly 1989 now as in, well, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written in 1814 (hence the album’s subtitle) but 175 years later our people need a new anthem of faith.

The album bustles along as exhilaratingly as anything on Def Jam or Alternative Tentacles at the time, songs linked by random TV scans or gnomic pronouncements (“Ain’t no acid in this house”), songs of jubilant protest, demanding change and newness. Halfway through side one, following songs about education, homelessness and drug addiction, Janet asks whether we got the point – A&M wanted her to do an album called Scandal about her personal life but Janet, and indeed Jam and Lewis, had other ideas and stood firm – says good, and invites us to dance. Yet “Miss You Much”’s underlying drone still creates an ambience of doom, as if already mourning something lost.

There are few more sheerly euphoric moments in eighties pop than the long, multi-armed snake procession of “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” which also, however, carries an air of triumph, of unstoppability, as if the I is going to become the We whether you smug fuckers like it or not; the creation of a new society. Buried deep in its mix is a dinner party guest from the sixties, Herb Alpert. And yet this celebration comes to the deadliest of halts at the end of side one to usher in the clearly deeply-felt “Livin’ In A World (They Didn’t Make),” which culminates in the voice of a newsreader grimly informing us of the Stockton playground massacre and reminds us of the innumerable mountains still (in 2015) to be climbed and overcome. And running like a scared spine through the song’s centre is Janet’s sudden cry, twice repeated, in the same key and at the same tempo, of “Save the babies! Save the babies!”

Side two is half hard dancefloor, half slow jams, but throw a similar description at A Love Supreme and see how inadequate that is. “Alright” hammers its defiant sticks like Neubauten pop celery. “Escapade” – apparently originally inspired by Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere To Run” (see for parallel purposes N.W.A.’s “100 Miles And Runnin’” from one year later) – is Prince worthy of Prince (or at the very least Sheila E). “Black Cat” rocks “Beat It” right out of the aeroplane door (kudos to Loud Heavy Rock Metal guitarist Dave Barry).

But the slow jams are the record’s slowly but intently beating heart, and are not really three songs as such but one song in three movements. “Lonely” lowers the lights and tempo and the record settles down to regain its breath – we are reminded that Janet was as inspired by Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman as Sly when it came to making this record.

But then “Come Back To Me,” one of Then Play Long’s greatest ballads, up there with “All Of My Heart,” “When Two Worlds Drift Apart” and “This Woman’s Work,” and a song which over a quarter of a century later does not fail to engage or move me. Like Paul O’Grady and Cilla’s “Alfie,” this gets me every time. It sounds like the end of everything, not just a “foreign affair.”

Why does the song move me so? It is difficult to listen to at this time of the year and normally it is one of these pieces of music which I keep fenced off for emotional overload reasons. But I think its sadness is more deeply rooted, because it is the one song on the record where she sounds like her brother – her brother in the mid-seventies, that is, the way he used to sound before fame, the world and life did things to him…and maybe it is that Michael whose return she is begging, the same Michael who in 1989 was so high up in the world that he was unreachable. It already feels like a premature requiem, building up melodically in ways not dissimilar to “Human” before slowly disintegrating into the same hanging F minor seventh chord which closes “Dreams”; the saddest chord in all of pop.

But, without any fuss, there then comes a happy ending, another Motown reference – “Someday we’ll be together…well, tonight is that ‘someday’ – and it is with “Someday Is Tonight” that Janet tries to channel the spirit of Marvin Gaye; hers is a brilliant performance, easily worthy of side one of Let’s Get It On (“If I Should Die Tonight” etc.), with her entirely satisfied murmurs and breathing settling to something approaching…utopia (meanwhile, a muted Herb Alpert returns to do a pretty mean Miles, and at the fadeout we hear a riff - can it be? - "West, End, Girls"...remember, we're all one...).

However, there is one last drone of warning – the ghost of “Livin’ In A World” (just as the ghost of “Come Back To Me” flutters briefly across the closing moments of side one, as if each side were a ghost of the other) returns as Janet gives the following warning:

“In complete darkness we are all the same.
It is only our knowledge and wisdom that separate us.
Don't let your eyes deceive you.”

If you have to credit What’s Going On? and To Pimp A Butterfly – and you must - Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 is the midwife.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

EURYTHMICS: We Too Are One



(#395:  23 September 1989, 1 week)

Track listing:  We Two Are One/The King And Queen Of America/(My My) Baby's Gonna Cry/Don't Ask Me Why/Angel/Revival/You Hurt Me (And I Hate You)/Sylvia/How Long?/When The Day Goes Down



"The door closed and I just waved good-bye, and when I began descending, I was shaking a bit - but the backseat drifter was gone.  I was released from the obsession, and before I'd reached the lobby I couldn't believe what a brain-dead glutton I'd been - for sex, for humiliation, for pseudodrama...And I planned right there never to repeat this sort of experience ever again.  The only way you can deal with the Tobiases of this world is not to let them into your lives at all. Blind yourself to their wares.  God, I felt relieved; not the least bit angry." Douglas Coupland, Generation X


There comes a time in any band's life when it should (or has to) come to an end; some bands have that end dictated to them, others just wear themselves out or go on a "hiatus" which turns out to be permanent.  Eurythmics, though, had to record this album before they split up for their own good - Dave and Annie weren't getting along anymore, and this disunion, if I can put it that way, is the subject of the album; Eurythmics being, if anything, a band that is definitely in control of itself.

That control was especially evident in their previous album, Savage, which makes a very handy guide/prequel to We Too Are OneSavage was the Eurythmics cutting loose after making the please-the-record-label Revenge,  and it includes the delirious, mocking "Beethoven (I Love To Listen To)," "Shame" (wherein Lennox looks at her generation and its gullibility towards the media and glamour), "You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart" (love as a commodity as opposed to love as something warm and free).  It's core, though, is "I Need You", where Lennox sings alongside Dave's acoustic guitar to a room full of happy cocktail hour people who aren't understanding anything she is saying.  It is one of those unexpected New Pop moments that takes the band and the audience and shows just what a gap there is, a kind of silence; or even makes it seem as if no one is listening at all and that she is singing to herself, more or less...

...and then there's "I Need A Man," where Lennox does a better Mick Jagger than Jagger himself, and her "Huh!" at the end shows her contempt for the whole rock rigmarole. 

How appropriate, then, that We Too Are One beat Steel Wheels to the top of the UK album chart, as Lennox and Stewart's dead-eyed stare at the camera was virtually saying, well here we are one more time, separate yet apart, not sarcastic or sharp like last time, but calm, with that cleansing sense that things are over, they are done, with nothing else needed to happen.

It starts with a steady, heavy backbeat and some wahh-woohs that sound half-human, half-mechanical - I thought it was going to be a first-song freakout, going back to Lennox's Redbrass days, but instead it is the first of many heavily ironic songs that says exactly what it doesn't mean.  "We Two Are One"?  Hmm, maybe.  It is, in fact, "Uncle" Charlie Wilson making noises as if he was playing a harmonica - yes, Wilson from The Gap Band!  The song is a vow of love, of fidelity - "We're gonna live forever."  In this upbeat song (which has Wilson also singing in the background), nothing is bad, though the fact that they can't be separate is because they are too "messed up" to live otherwise.  This is an album that may sound confident and big on the surface, but look underneath....

...and here are "The King And Queen Of America" who don't exist, who can't exist, but have such self-belief that they think they do.  "We're the all-time winners in the all-time loser's game" - another big brassy song steams along.  "The king of nothing and the queen of rage" is what they really are, on their "glittering stage" - is this the Eurythmics themselves?  Or just any couple who aim big but get little, really, in return?  What it boils down to is a near parody of David Bowie's Let's Dance, showing up that shiny emptiness for what it is, and of course the king and queen here end up going into outer space, the normal Earth having nothing good enough for them....

"(My My) Baby's Gonna Cry" is the first key song here - an anti-"I Got You Babe" that trundles along with David and Annie singing to each other, with Jimmy Iovine as the ref (he was brought in to settle any and all disputes, and I'm guessing there were a lot). Yes, we hear them both, flat and done, with no relish, because this is real.  The guitar break has fake audience applause in it, as if to say - yes, you the audience, you too are involved in this, applauding our misery up here, go ahead, we're beyond irony now.  The line between a song being a song and a song being something happening right in front of you, as you listen, is very narrow here, though the punctum has yet to fully appear...

"Don't Ask Me Why" is in the traditional Eurythmics style, with plucked strings and a delicate, but harsh line from Lennox.  "I don't love you anymore, I don't think I ever did" is a  painful thing to admit.  A lot of pretenses are being dropped, and the efforts of a whole decade are coming up as empty, with nothing good in the distance.  The 80s have been, from this perspective, a letdown, and a lot of soul-searching is the answer, but in the hubbub, the rush to the end, is self-knowledge even possible?

"Angel" is ostensibly about the death of Lennox's aunt, but hearing this at the time - those "57 winters" jumped out at me  - my own father dying at 58, in the winter.  Did I think of my father as an angel flying over me?  No, most certainly not.  The first verse is longing and plaintive and lovely, but then come these lines - "She took her life in her hands...no one can tell her what to do now."  Did she die naturally, or not?  I don't know, and don't want to presume, but this song too has a way of sounding utterly normal Magic-104.5-friendly and yet barbed, as if this angel is faulty, protective but fragile, too.  I don't doubt Lennox's sincerity here, and it would inevitably be the song Lennox would re-record for the 1997 tribute album to the late Princess Diana...this is a long way off "There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart)."

"Revival" is a song that sounds as if it could be a way forward, telling others (themselves?) to get up, get out, get on with it - and Wilson is again here in the background.  It sounds more than a bit like "She Drives Me Crazy" but that's not a bad thing, right now.  "Living in a bad dream" is a phrase which jumps out, and the woman in the next verse - Mona Lisa to his Superman - is twisted, bitter, beaten-up.  To revive is to come back to life; and Lennox wants to do this, but there's wanting to do something and then doing it.  This song, as well-meaning as it sounds, doesn't have enough oomph to truly do the job; it's too pat, too easy.  Even Lennox doing her best to invoke James Brown at the end only makes me want to hear the actual James Brown - a man who needed some reviving himself at this time, if I'm right...

"You Hurt Me (And I Hate You)" starts with Lennox greeting the new day (as she did at the end of Savage) with the sun entering her room, the light spreading across her, as she slept "like a baby."  The song picks up, with Lennox at her fiercest, claiming "I'm not an angel, I'm not that quaint" (thus damning the previous angel?) and saying she doesn't need a preacher (bringing back her "Missionary Man" to diss again).  She has been the broken nail to his hammer, and her hate seems to be invading everything, her sureness in her being in the right and his being in the wrong is absolute.  "You put me down" she sings in the background, as she vows to make her scorn inescapable for him.  This is a bright and sprightly song, but again feels a little...cursory?  Everything here is still a bit guarded - this is like a therapy session of an album, inviting you in to hear things being said, but there is no resolution in sight.  Catharsis, cleansing - those are the aims, but instead a kind of terrible truce is being acted out here, before Lennox storms out, done and exhausted....  

"Sylvia" is a song I took to be about Plath at the time, and its eerie harmonies and pauses are near psychedelic - we are looking at a young woman, a woman who longs to be nothing - "the queen has lost her crown today."  "Passing through the underground" is something I knew, could feel.  Only in sleep can she "forget herself" but there she is in London, painted and ready to be adored, only to meet with "cold caresses" - this is Lennox herself, running to London from Aberdeen, and now alone, her partnerships over, missing, truly gone.  The anger of the previous song has turned into wanting to be gone, be forgotten, to be absent.  It is a stunning song, compassionate, sweet even, in its own way....

....and now, can there be a way out of the 80s?  Because it is going, and the Eurythmics with it...

"How Long?" looks out the window - it's 5 in the afternoon, the radio is on, the wind is casually shaking up the dust on the street...it is in the details that change, positive change (hello Soul II Soul) appear.  And the band sounds a little different here - more bass-heavy, with a kind of space that is narrow, but you know is going to widen.  A little curtain on the 90s appears...life in the "fancy town" is dull, boring as frozen food, bare, immoral.  "How long will your love hold on, stay strong enough?" is the question, against the rising winds and growing dusk.  We are in the very roots of Curve here - the doctor's dotted line, the pavement's cracks, the sense of something wrong having to be endured over, prevailed....

....and then...

The last song, "When The Day Goes Down."  It starts gently, with Lennox directly addressing her audience - telling them not to cry, telling them that "you're as good as all them, of this you can be sure."  But who are being addressed especially?  I don't think its herself, or Stewart, but the people who are to come.  "Don't think that you're the only one who's ever broke right down and cried" she says, giving those people her shoulder, her hand...

..."this is for the broken dreamers...the hopeless losers, the helpless fools...the burned-out and the useless...the lost and the degraded....the too dumb to speak."  These are not her peers she is talking to, not the yuppies, not even the strong-minded young women who have paid attention to the Eurythmics from the start.  No, this is the next generation, who have been on the wrong end of everything since they were born - who have witnessed terrible things, had terrible things done to them, and who have (as of yet) no real cultural voice of their own, no nickname even.  The day goes down on them too much; she is here to let them know that they are not alone (as so many of them feel and think) and that while she understands their misery, they cannot give up.  This is Generation X, the ones who don't fit in, just as Lennox says of herself - "I don't fit into any slot.  I am not really a rock and roller and I never really was a punk or a hippy..."  She is here as a misfit herself to acknowledge the others, to, at the very end, bring punctum.  Her hopeless obsessing over a dead relationship is gone, and her actual compassion and love are evident, and the long drum roll at the end brings even a kind of nobility. 

We too are one; the unity mocked at the start suddenly becomes real.  The night is coming, but it can be endured, because of this unity.  Thus ends the 80s from the Eurythmics' point of view - internally fractured, but not too self-obsessed to extend their empathy outwards, to encourage that positive change....

Up next:  two courageous generations.