CHALICE AFORETHOUGHT

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August 2016 has been a red letter month for reissues because after I thought “English Settlement” would never come off the playlist, there is a new remastered Super Deluxe Edition of the Simple Minds classic from 1982 – “New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)” to replace it endlessly.

And it is just as wonderful as it sounds.

Now I have already recently written about Simple Minds when mounting a defence of the sometimes neglected “Once Upon A Time” which would be released three years later but during the course, I admitted my love for this album above all their others – indeed it figures in my Twelve That Travel list which features in the main menu – and said that if they ever got round to a new version and box set I would be unstoppable in wanting to write about it.

Now I have to admit, I have versions of this album from each of its releases. I’ve had it on cassette, CD and then remastered version and I have a beautiful version in marbled gold vinyl to complement the striking cover. – which is one of my favourite, if naturally unplayed, pieces of my collection… together with the singles in all their various formats – picture discs, remixes and poster bags.

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Every single piece of this album’s construction screams attention to detail – from packaging, to design to sonic creativity.

But then that was always at the very heart of the album.

I had the pleasure of seeing a later version of the band perform the album in its entirety and you easily realise what a complete work it is. It is therefore, a wonderfully difficult album to deconstruct as it it fits together so seamlessly, with each track blending beautifully into the next, creating a textured soundscape that makes me suggest this is the best album Brian Eno never made.

It is interesting because Simple Minds previous work was patchy and heavily took its influence from Bowie’s Eno-produced Berlin trilogy, which (and I appreciate this is sacrilegious now) could be quite unlistenable in parts.

Yet when I listen now to the composition and delicacy of this album it resembles far more those other titans of Glam Art – Roxy Music. It shimmers and beguiles as a recording with its esoteric themes and subtle hooks. From the opening bars of “Someone Somewhere (In Summertime)” where you are immediately  transported to some ethereal world from which you will not return until the closing shudder of “The King Is White And In The Crowd”.

This album becomes the culmination of everything they have been searching for over their previous recordings and the journey is there for all to hear. Its seamless nature seems to echo the trajectory of their deliberate search. A true musical quest.

Jim Kerr’s voice is used like another instrument as it changes pitch and depth to the surroundings that his musical cohorts set up and each of them introduce tiny flourishes that continually build interest into every single track. It never slackens. The triptych of “Colours Fly And Catherine Wheels” (fizzing like its title) then “Big Sleep” and the side one closer of the curiously Balearic instrumental “Somebody Up There Likes Me” evoke all the classic elements of the album and form a riveting centrepiece  , while “The Hunter And The Hunted” has the added bonus of Herbie Hancock (yes that Herbie Hancock) putting a suitably jittery keyboard solo in to close.

Really it all begins with the first single, “Promised You A Miracle” because, although the album sounds entirely seamless, was recorded nearly six months earlier as an on-tour session. In the box set, you can hear its very first outing – before it was recorded officially – on the Kid Jensen show. However, it marked quite a change in the writing style for the band and in their fortunes, becoming their first significant hit and its richness combined with a more mainstream sensibility laid down the blueprint for the entire recording.

It is still a powerful blast from the past and captured that nexus of new romantic and futurism of which they and The Associates were probably the greatest exponents. It is dark, curious and has every instrument delivering something new every time you listen.

The follow-up single “Glittering Prize” manages to the follow the plan without becoming formulaic but really the album’s pinnacle is the title track, “New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)”, which really has taken on a greater resonance with the new remaster. I say this because whilst it is an album very much of its time, it has lost none of its impact. It is almost the very representation of the Holy Grail depicted on the cover. It soars and swoops and you ride on its back. It almost never appeared as Jim Kerr was only able to drop lyrics in at the very last minute and yet it sounds like it spent centuries being marinated.

It really is a new found highlight.

Much of the enduring success should perhaps be given to Pete Walsh the producer who was fairly inexperienced and until then had only really engineered but most significantly on one of the previous year’s highlights the equally commendable “Penthouse And Pavement” by Heaven 17. There is so much depth and layering that the album never loses its bite.

Simple Minds may not have access to Presidents and may no longer sell out stadia but what  U2 would give to be able to say that they had produced an album as defining as this – they were so influenced by it that they began their relationship with Eno for “The Unforgettable Fire” and “The Joshua Tree” which was possibly as close as they came but they both lack the completeness of the Holy Grail – the sound Simple Minds spent four albums trying to find.

And here is where it all came together perfectly.

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BEAUTIFULLY PUT TOGETHER

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One of the main spurs to writing this blog – apart from my own amusement – was to look back at now-forgotten albums and reappraise them, normally in the light of some reissue program that necessitated my purchase once more of an album I already had in perfectly acceptable and well-kept condition. All of this inevitably at an inflated price for the sake of a bonus disc or new sleeve notes or a reordered tracklist. Often the sound is remastered (hence the name), cleaned up and improved so that you can pick up the odd nuance of which you were never previously aware.

Obviously, there is no logic to this at all as I am simply once again putting money into the pockets of record companies who have found a new way to part me from the contents of my wallet.

And I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Often it’s done without the direction of the artist and can disappoint. Lloyd Cole recently apologized to fans for the reissue of “Rattlesnakes” as it used sub-standard mixes and an incorrect listing. Nik Kershaw was involved in his reissues and used it as an opportunity to correct some elements he had not liked at the time and then had to explain himself to his more anorak-y fans.

But once in a while, something comes along which absolutely redefines the whole experience of an album for you and is repurposed (admittedly at significant expense) as a thing of not inconsiderable beauty.

On this occasion, unsurprisingly, it is those masters for detail – and one of my very favorites – XTC who have reissued two simply exquisite box sets of “Skylarking” and, the current subject “English Settlement” from 1982.

It is very difficult for me to say which is my favorite XTC album or period because I liked everything they ever produced. I never travel without “Nonsuch” and loved “Apple Venus Volume 1” so much I used to give it to people as a gift. Everything they produced was a product of care and attention and mastery of their craft.

If you read “Complicated Game”, then you will hear Andy Partridge talk through the background to each phase of his writing and production. I suspect this is only for the most devoted but there is a section where he also shows his handwritten lyrics and designs for covers. Every detail of his release is covered by him obsessively. He was famously not easy to work with and this obsession may well be why.

But he could produce some truly wonderful things.

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At the heart of everything I love about XTC probably lies “English Settlement”. As a recording it is the nexus of their entire output and is all the more enjoyable for that. It still retains some of the spiky angularity of their New Wave selves in songs like the ska-like opener “Runaways” and the strong protest of “Melt The Guns” but then begins to hint at the very bucolic leanings and “english-ness” of the band that would become evermore prevalent in albums like “Mummer” and “Skylarking” but really continued delightfully right until the end of their recording lifespan.

Interestingly, during the tour to support this album, the band famously quit touring and cancelled their tour largely as a result of Andy Partridge’s stage fright and they became a studio-bound band for evermore. Hence, their powers of experimentation should be acknowledged as amongst the very best of their kind and yet no record sales would really indicate that they gained their rightful recognition.

At the release of “English Settlement”, they were at the very height of their success. “Drums And Wires” and “Black Sea” had produced an unbeatable string of truly excellent pop singles from “Making Plans For Nigel” to “Sgt Rock Is Going To Help Me” via “Generals And Majors” and “Love At First Sight”.

But the best of all was to come next.

The thunderous “Senses Working Overtime”.

It’s not just their best single but, for me, simply one of my favourite singles by anyone. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before and still doesn’t – apart from some later XTC. This is a stunning tribute to rural living which has that quaint medieval feel about it – best summed up by the fact Partridge invented their own typeface for this recording (talk about attention to detail).

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The song is simply joyous, thrilling and wonderfully constructed – though no-one knows why the line “And buses might skid on black ice” was removed from the single version. This is what an English summer sounds like in all it’s glory.

The acoustic guitar drives it but there is Colin Moulding’s unique fretless bass slides giving a slightly sinister quality to the verses whilst Terry Chambers drumming simply adds to the ecstatic nature of the song. It remains one of the most unusual songs to ever hit the mainstream and starts XTC’s love affair with the countryside as an inspiration for their work – it comes absolutely to the fore in the stately “Yacht Dance”.

It’s the kind of Beatlish storytelling and scene-setting that is probably why there are often so many comparisons with the Fab 4 but the variety of experimentation that they introduce in this album is certainly reminiscent. “Jason And The Argonauts” tells the mythical tale against a shimmering rhythm track and Dave Gregory’s pain-staking guitar licks that really summons up the atmosphere of sea-faring.

There is always an element of humour and satirical comedy in XTC’s work and it often comes from the more everyday lens of Colin Moulding’s lyrics. “Fly On The Wall” has a claustrophobic compressed vocal that seeks to attack the tax service – XTC would have run-ins over payments for many years – whilst “Ball And Chain” and the reggae-ish “English Roundabout” seem to focus on the architectural eyesores of their hometown of Swindon in contrast to much of the album’s rural feel.

In contrast, Andy Partridge can write remarkably bittersweet love songs. “Snowman” is a remarkably angry blast set to the counterpoint of a bouncy bright melody whilst “All Of A Sudden (It’s Too Late)” remains one of his strongest but most plaintive songs about the losing of a relationship set to a languid bass rhythm and guitar cycle with all sorts of interesting licks added to give it extraordinary texture.

And it’s worth pointing out how beautifully played the entire album is as it manages to pull together the sharp New Wave leanings with the mellowness of the newly introduced acoustic layer. It’s almost as if the decision to pull out of live performance could be predicted as the work became more and more complex and difficult to replicate. When The Beatles gave up touring their latest album was “Revolver” and their live set contained nothing from it.

Sadly, in giving up touring, Terry Chambers, whose drumming on this album manages to combine New Wave and Medieval with a variety of intricate patterns and unexpected rhythms, would leave the band as he felt he had so little to do and missed the role. His playing was a real characteristic of “English Settlement”.

We should never forget that this was 1982 and so political comment was never far away for most bands who took themselves seriously. “Melt The Guns” would be a presage of “Nonsuch”s “Wardance” and there are nods to environmental thinking all through the recording. However, most interesting were their attacks on the nasty brutish often racially motivated campaigns that were rife in a world still recovering from the riots of Toxteth and the alarming prevalence of the National Front. “Knuckle Down” is a plea for peace and tolerance but the most astonishing work is “No Thugs In Our House” written and played out as a three act play (and interlude) with an anguished opening and incredibly observed piece of writing.

It is a remarkably clever piece written about Graham (a name jokingly inspired by Colin Moulding’s mysteriously unknown brother) who basically is a racist thug and sleeps throughout the duration of the song while a policeman interviews his unwitting parents about his heinous attacks. It is still a fascinating and furious dissection of an unpleasant part of society both then and now.

Ken Loach or Shane Meadows would be proud, though strange choice as a single.

XTC’s obsession for detail goes back to this period as well as all they regularly produced beautiful packaging for their records. “Making Plans For Nigel” had come with a career board game; “Sgt Rock” had it’s own poster insert whilst “Senses Working Overtime” had an intricate fold-out sleeve. It must have nearly bankrupted Virgin’s design unit.

“No Thugs In Our House” however, was the piece de resistance as it came in a gatefold toy theatre complete with characters, mimicking the pollen of the story which had something of the Victorian melodrama about it. It is one of the very best 45 sleeves of this or any era.

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And really that is why XTC are so very special for those of us who love them. Their precision and care in every aspect of what they did made the experience of listening to them all the more rewarding. They would experiment but never to the point of forgetting melodies or rhythms. They would deal with big issues but never to the point of being preachy; and they could deal with the remarkably mundane but never to the point of being boring. Wiltshire is their home and they are proud of that.

“English Settlement” is a marvellous starter if you want to begin a journey into XTC. I can vouch that there will always be something interesting happening and much to truly enjoy.

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COULD’VE BEEN A CONTENDER

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Sometimes, I fall in love with a band ahead of their popular success and there’s always a  part of me that’s just a little resentful that everybody else catches on. They’re no longer my  own secret.

More interesting are the bands I fall in love with that don’t catch on; that the rest of the record buying public chooses to ignore my obvious good taste and pick something else off the shelf.

Each decade creates one for me – the 80s saw Blue Rondo A La Turk never move from being clubland darlings. There lack of success is often attributed to the unlucky break of a technicians strike on the week they were due to be on Top Of The Pops. Their classic “Me & Mr Sanchez” was however Brazilian TV’s theme for World Cup coverage in the summer of 1982 and, as if that was not enough of a claim to fame, they were also the headliners for the Smiths first ever live performance.

In the 00s, there was a band called Golden Silvers who had emerged out of club nights around London with an odd pop/dance sound that should have set the airwaves alight but despite critical support and winning best new act at Glastonbury, never got out of the blocks. “True Romance (True No.9 Blues)” reached the heady heights of #142. They had terrific rhythms welded to very knowing, clever lyrics  and, with luck, could have been the faces of 2009.

Both Blue Rondo and Golden Silvers were not short of an on-the-ground fanbase (Golden Silvers hosted “Bronze Club” and Blue Rondo were the face of the Blitz and The Wag Club) and seemed to have plenty of record company marketing backing, at least initially.

But no massive hits.

Of course, in the 90s, some of the most interesting action occurred around Britpop which nowadays seems to bring constant referrals to the Blur/Oasis showdown of 1995 and little else, except the odd glimpse of Jarvis Cocker or Brett Anderson. The fact is, there were bands teeming out of everywhere – some of them not actually real bands like Menswear – and getting hits. The Bluetones, Shed 7, Divine Comedy, Cast, Sleeper, Elastica and on and on and on.

It was a broad church but a real shot in the arm for the whole industry and fans alike.

So if everyone could get a moment in the sun, why couldn’t My Life Story?

They did get some success but some of you will never have heard of their “The Golden Mile” album – it just scraped into the Top 40 as did four of their singles – and yet I bet the tunes seem strangely familiar. They were popular with the press and the radio stations but never really broke through and were soon moved on from their label – to be replaced by the apparently easier to deal with Divine Comedy in what the record company saw as a like for like exchange.

From the first blast of tympani and strings for “12 Reasons Why I Love Her” you realise you are in for a rollercoaster of a musical journey that is lavish, extravagent and filled with real genuine earworms – although I swear the string riff is nicked from the Fun Boy Three’s wonderful “Tunnel Of Love”.

Yet the record buying public seemed to prefer things like Babylon Zoo.

Why? Why? Why?

I couldn’t have given you one reason let alone 12.

They thundered out of the speakers as if Morrissey was backed by a fully-fledged chamber orchestra. There were the wordplay themes that were often the mark of Britpop heavies like Pulp and Oasis, with puns and lyrical curveballs aplenty and all delivered with Jake Shillingford’s exuberant and melodramatic torch flamboyance. Mark Almond would be proud.

“Sparkle” for instance has all the drive and action of a Bond theme – although for completists, the original on the previous album is slightly better – but really shows off everything that the singer and his orchestra can throw at us.

“I Dive” has strong reminiscences of contemporary Oasis but there is also humour in their work with “Strumpet” treading into similar Carry On fnarr-fnarr territory as Blur’s “Stereotypes”.

“Cinzano Drip-fed, Leopardskin Bedspread, Housewife Superstar, Feather Boa Constrictor”.

Opening lines like these don’t come along very often and it certainly paints a picture of your song’s main protagonist.

“Suited And Booted” still feels like a paean to that particular buzz of London in 1997 – all Groucho Club and Met Bar – where fashion was king and “Cool Britannia” was the rather embarrassing headline.

The run of singles with their arch lyrics and frenetic strings were something of a trademark for the My Life Story but may have caused them to be pigeon-holed. Certainly, Shillingford was keen for the much slower and more moving “You Can’t Uneat The Apple” to be released as a single in an effort to get the band reappraised but instead a poor version of The Stranglers’ “Duchess” which was recorded as a joke – and sounded it too – and its comparative failure simply accelerated the demise for the band with the label.

This for me is a tragedy, as they could create unbelievable and memorable pop-songs like “The King Of Kissingdom” perhaps the catchiest of all of their songs, though written paradoxically about a drug dealer in the heart of the swinging metropolis. Once this one get in your head there will be no escape but imagine if you will, one of the other great beneficiaries of Britpop, Robbie Williams, getting involved in this kind of crackling lyrical fusillade (or indeed any of Jake Shillingford’s work) and think how big a hit that would have been. You are really only a short step to “Tripping” or “Candy”.

I have been thoroughly enjoying revisiting “The Golden Mile” and have had it playing constantly and yet, I think its strength and delight for me now, is the origin of its comparative failure in 1997. Throughout this review, it’s been benchmarked against everything else of the time – the bounciness of Blur, the acerbity of Pulp, the lyrical twists of Robbie Williams…. and Morrissey and Oasis and and and…

The fact is that the album and their style was too closely reminiscent of other contemporaries – not any one singularly but like a blended mix of 1996 era Britpop. It sounds great now when the airwaves are not full of the sound and you want something different but at the time, perhaps it was just trying too hard to be one of the gang.  You can sense the elevator sell – “they’re lyrically a southern Pulp, with the bounce of “Great Escape” Blur and Suede’s melodramatic swagger but with a voice like Scott Walker- all set to strings”. Simply too many references, I would hazard and therefore, potentially just a pastiche.

In so doing, they perhaps failed to define clearly their own unique sound and image – it’s unfair but probably not entirely inaccurate. “The Golden Mile” faithfully records the feel of the time, its characters and its attitudes. It’s brash, upbeat and pushy (as good pop should always be) and makes a very nice change from another lonely female acoustic version of an old classic.

In fact, My Life Story were headed for being in the forefront of Britpop but their label (Mother Tongue) collapsed and they had to wait to be signed by Parlophone  and so instead joined the comet’s tail of this scene. It’s all about luck.

We should regret that this group weren’t more successful than they were at the time but be thankful that we can listen to them now as they are a far more lasting artefact of the time and a 1000 times more fun than “Be Here Now”, “This Is Hardcore” or “Blur”. 

It is about luck and Jake Shillingford deserves some – paging Robbie Williams.

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BURNT HUMBER

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Dance / Disco was not really a genre that used to lend itself to albums. By and large, it’s always been a singles format, or indeed an extended singles format. This was a world of largely million-selling one-off hits performed by faceless artists with a belting groove and catchy (often chant-like) melodies designed for filling floors in dance clubs.

Their mission was simple; to shake bootys, groove thangs and moneymakers, in no particular order..

George McCrae made “Rock Your Baby” while waiting for his wife to turn up at a studio and Lipps Inc were a bunch of session musicians messing about in a studio who then produced the unstoppable  “Funky Town”.

The emphasis of this changed really with Michael Jackson’s timeless “Off The Wall” an album that spawned five hit singles and created the image of an entirely new kind of pop star from a genre that had not really produced them before.

However, while buying up several of the reissued disco albums that were released in the mid to late seventies (thanks go to the BBR label), it seemed to me that this mega-album owed its success to some very obvious antecedents that came from some very unlikely places.

Cleethorpes on the Humber was just one.

The seventies was a decade which was bookended by two exhilarating movements in British music – the sparkle of Glam Rock and, at the end of the decade, the bite and bravado of New Wave and Punk. In the middle of the decade, apart from the domination of the rock behemoths in the album charts, there was no real indication that this was the land that had spawned the Beatles and the Stones ten years earlier or that the Clash and XTC were just around the corner.

The charts were frothy and very unchallenging. The one notable exception was soul/disco which, although imported from the US in the main with some European crossover, had implanted itself into the hearts of the dancing British public in a way that would endure with far greater resonance than amongst their American counterparts.

Homegrown Disco often came from bands on the club circuit – Tina Charles and The Dooleys – and was a very very pale imitation of the real thing but Britain did produce one bona fide global disco smash – Heatwave’s “Boogie Nights”.

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Strictly speaking, they weren’t entirely British but were an American soul band based in Germany (as was Donna Summer), centered on the Wilder Brothers as vocalists but with a backing band from Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Jamaica and the UK. Amongst this number was keyboard player and arranger, Rod Temperton who had moved to Germany, having previously worked for a fish factory in Grimsby – he’s the one at the side who looks like he works in a Grimsby fish factory but wearing some of Earth Wind And Fire’s cast-offs instead of overalls. His discomfort is palpable.

Having begun touring away from the military bases, they moved to the UK and were signed eventually by GTO records and with their afore-mentioned second single, penned by Temperton, created a deserved but unlikely worldwide smash.

Their second album, “Central Heating” is, to my mind one of the quintessential disco albums and is owed an enormous debt by “Off The Wall”. It is smooth, resolutely upbeat and never loses its pop sensibility. It also manages to showcase the band’s variety which within such a seemingly narrowly defined genre is a rare treat.

“The Star Of A Story” has a meandering silkiness that feels as if it could have emerged from one of Stevie Wonder’s mid 70s classics, although perhaps a little syrupy for my liking. “Happiness Togetherness” manages to keep the right side of romantic and also seems to have a Stylistics mood to it. Meanwhile “Put The Word Out”, “Send Out For Sunshine” and the title track “Central Heating” are absolutely kick-ass groovers.

But the real highlight is of course, the fantastic “The Groove Line”, an impeccable song that would not have been lost on “Off The Wall” or better still Michael’s album with his brothers at the time, “Destiny”. It is a thumping floor-filler that is often forgotten in comparison to its transatlantic counterparts but has all the joyous authenticity you could ever want from a disco classic.

It is another interesting point to notice that at the same time as this album was released Kool & The Gang changed their stylings from the excellent but haphazard jazz-funk of “Hollywood Swinging'” and brought in a pop styled lead singer in Jams “JT” Taylor and would the following year embark on a hugely successful dance-pop career. The line from “Central Heating” to “Ladies Night” is an easy one to follow.

And that’s aside from also initiating the great lost genre of Brit-funk which is a subject for a later date.

The debts to Heatwave just keep accumulating.

By now, Rod Temperton had put his not entirely unsurprising awkwardness on stage to one side and concentrated on simply being a writer for the band and was responsible for the majority of the album, which apart from “The Groove Line” had one other astonishingly accomplished and timeless track in “Mind Blowing Decisions”, as sinewy summery a piece of super smooth soul as you could ever find. It simply gets better every time I hear it with its layered texture, reggae-ish slink and surprisingly well-chosen and non-stereotypical lyrics and sentiments.

If it’s a hot day today, try not to enjoy every single minute of this.

It’s a song that seems to have heavily influenced Quincy Jones “Off The Wall” production with its textured, mellow vibe – its audio footprint can be heard in that album’s “Girlfriend” and even Thriller’s “Human Nature”. There is a gentle ease in the atmosphere of the record that it is small wonder Quincy invited Rod Temperton to contribute to his protege’s breakthrough work.

But here’s the thing, it wasn’t written by Temperton but actually by singer, Johnny Wilder Jr, so although the arrangement owed much to the man from Humberside, the production puts forward another unlikely hero.

One Barry Green…

From Middlesex.

Or as you might remember him Barry Blue.

That’s right, writer and performer of late-Glam fame, “Dancin’ On A Saturday Night” Barry Blue.

The truth is he had been a reluctant pop star whose his dress sense was questionable at best (he may have had too much say in the band’s wardrobe too as they seemed to have a penchant for all things shiny too), but understood all about melodies, hooks and stomping rhythms. Mercifully, he had put aside the bouzouki solo breaks but he really could fill a three minute record with textures and hooks that allied a genuine passion for dance floor drive but with the exuberance of any great pop single – and say what you like, that was a great pop single.

Rod Temperton’s global success is of course well documented as he wrote hits for all kinds of performers but I do enjoy the thought of disco classics “Off The Wall”  and “Celebration” having their origins not just in his work but also in the production stylings of British glam rock and two separate gentlemen with very dubious fashion sense.

Well it’s a theory…

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ZEITGEIST

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Thursday was always a big day for a pop aficionado in the Eighties because not only was there the “must-see” Top Of The Pops which often gave you your first glimpse of an artist you might have only heard on Radio One until then, but also, and equally importantly, that week’s Record Mirror was available at the newsagents.

You cannot under-estimate the importance of the music press if you were living outside the heaving metropolis of shimmering (or so it seemed) London. It was here and in the other venerable publications of the time, NME, Melody Maker and The Face that we heard of these mystical venues such as The Blitz and The Wag Club, The Camden Palace and The Electric Ballroom, filled with beautiful scene-makers and New Romantics – you didn’t get many of them walking through the centre of Durham to my recollection.

The music press was really our connection to where the action was; it was our beacon and taste-maker. The world out there seemed unshockable.

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The darlings of all of this attention were undoubtedly Spandau Ballet, who had launched as one of the pioneers of the New Romantic movement  with the sonorous “Journeys To Glory”. It had all the right sounding synthesiser beats, allied with catchier hooks than many of their contemporaries. However, it did also possess that rather grandiose Teutonic feel so favoured by those who claimed Kraftwerk as an influence. Singles like “The Freeze”, “Musclebound” and the still powerful debut “To Cut A Long Story Short” all possess that style of remote tension both musically and lyrically.

Of course, this version of Spandau Ballet – all kilts and frills – is the image that immediately springs to mind when recalling the band.

Or, of course, it’s the balladeering and besuited housewives favourites, tanned and conspicuously successful that emerged with the immense success of “True”.

But there is another more interesting period that comes in between both of these eras marked by the album called “Diamond” which very nearly sank the band forever but, for many is their real highpoint – at least in parts.

Originally, released in March 1982, “Diamond was a peculiar release in that we had first heard output from it in July of the previous year with “Chant No.1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On)” and the music scene was whirling on at such a pace that by the time the album was released, they had two further singles that had failed to really trouble record buyers and the album release looked like ‘last-chance saloon’ for the band after only two albums and a huge amount of hype – not least from themselves.

The album finds the band very much at a crossroads. The final three tracks, “Pharaoh”, “Innocence And Science” and the epic “Missionary” all seem to use the previous album as their style guide. There’s lots of mood and atmosphere set to almost military rhythms and they obviously have half an ear to the success of contemporaries, Ultravox and so creation end-sequence that is part-Balearic (esp. the under-rated “Pharaoh” – much admired now by the band, themselves) and part-overblown experimenting but all really delightfully and rather pretentiously obscure, as New Romanticism so often was won’t to be.

The third single and second flop, “She Loved Like Diamond” has all the hallmarks of the easier stylistic leanings that would come with the “True” album and especially “Gold”; thereby also establishing that Gary Kemp had some kind of lyrical jewellery fetish. The song fails because Tony Hadley’s voice and Gary Kemp’s melody do not quite have the strength that the follow-up would bring and also sounds far too mainstream on this most contemporary of recordings.

The final single is seen as the one that rescued the band and came about because the record company were fearing the loss of their investment and brought in Trevor Horn to remix the desperately ungrammatical “Instinction”. He brought them their first Top 10 single for over a year and probably saved the band an early release from their contract – though this is open to debate, Record Mirror certainly hinted at it.

He took the album version and simply tightened the single release of “Instinction”  to emphasise its hugely memorable melody line and make an excellent pop single that hinted at the kind of power-pop they would create soon enough with “Communication” and “Lifeline” on the later album and through onto the “Parade” LP afterwards – it really set the blueprint for the kind of performance the band would produce for the rest of their career but with still a touch of the mystic oddness that came from the rest of the album.

However, the duration of the releases from “Diamond” is important because the earlier releases are very much the sound of 1981 Soho clubland – part-Latin, part-funk, part-pop and much-loved by the music press. This was the world that was the habitat of The Face and the gossip column of the Record Mirror. This was sharp-suited, supercool and dance-driven and conjured up a world that really existed for only the very shortest of times.

One of my very favourite (but forgotten) bands, Blue Rondo A La Turk, seemed to be the very essence of this whole scene but through a series of bad luck situations, they never gained the attention they so thoroughly deserved. However, this scene did not burn brightly without at least one song leaving an indelible mark on the collective pop consciousness and, for me it is Spandau Ballet’s finest song – “Chant No.1”.

It is a record that sounds dangerous even now with a sense of brooding excitement and over-heating claustrophobia. They borrowed the horn section of jazz-funk band Beggar & Co who had just had their own exceptional hit “Somebody Help Me Out”, to create gripping stabs of brass that just served to turn the attack up on the unexpectedly tight groove. This was the celebration of that world that seemed so far away – Le Beat Route et al, where the promo was shot – and is still one of the decade’s defining 45s.

As an aside, Beggar and Co would return the favour for their exposure by releasing their follow-up single with the subtitle “Mule (Chant No.2)” – sadly it was not terribly successful.

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The unheralded “Coffee Club” also delightfully hijacks the Latin sound so deftly exorcised by their Blue Rondo contemporaries whilst the second flop single “Paint Me Down” really has stood the test of time and perhaps only really suffered chart-wise from not being quite as good as the immaculate “Chant No.1”. It still has the scent of clubland all over it and is deserving of reconsideration especially in its extended version.

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The world of music moved very quickly on the early eighties and in under three years Spandau Ballet would move from the New Romantic jerkiness  of “To Cut A Long Story Short” to the radio-friendly blue-eyed soul of “True” and then by and large, stick to that theme for the rest of their career (either side of the notorious court case). I know there will always be accusations of Spandau being preening clothes-horses, however, there was a time when they were the faithful recorders of the “Scene” – the very hippest of the very hottest.

“Diamond” is an odd collection because I can think of few albums that can so clearly delineate a band’s past, present and future. It may be the simple length of its gestation that makes it so uneven and hence the least successful. But it deserves full marks for experimentation and bringing a faraway world so brilliantly into the lives of those who felt they had no chance of ever witnessing it.

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BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR

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It must be amongst the most unsettling of feelings… spending your life wanting to be a pop star and then you actually become one. None of the rehearsals or sleeping in the back of a van or trying desperately to get a deal can prepare you for what it would actually be like to see your record flying up the charts.

Many wish for it but few attain it.

Roddy Frame managed it when he was just nineteen years old. But his band was no TV-vote conglomerate or bunch of choreographed clothes-horses but instigators of one of the great debut albums “High Land And Hard Rain” in 1983. Their jangling guitars and beautifully constructed melodies were obviously influenced by the Byrds and “Rubber Soul” at a time when synthesizers and sequencers were the thing but this emerging indie-pop sound was a refreshing blast of proper musicianship and skilled songwriting.

It was counter-cultural and raw without being overly threatening. A bloodless revolution.

Of course, at the same time as all these bands broke through, major record labels became interested – and so Orange Juice go to Polydor and Prefab Sprout join CBS. Aztec Camera are taken in with open arms by WEA who see a wonderful new talent in the band and especially their charismatic and good-looking singer and songwriter, Roddy Frame.

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The only problem is that despite plenty of promotion and multi-format marketing, they still never really break through in terms of sales. They never lose the critics’ admiration nor their super-loyal fanbase but for WEA, their second album “Knife” though more rocky – thanks to production from Mark Knopfler and its Dylan influences – does not propel the band (or their investment) forward much further than their initial impact with “Oblivious”.

So in 1987, Frame sets off to America – undoubtedly with the intention of becoming “big” there – with his latest portfolio of songs and a new found interest in hip-hop and r’n’b from producers such as Jam and Lewis. Remember he’s still only 23 and like all of us at that age still exploring – he just happens to have two critically acclaimed albums under his belt.

Strangely, while the Americans were trying desperately to find a way to mimic their MTV-hogging British cousins, in Britain there appeared a movement to try and make everything as smooth as late 70s AOR from across the Atlantic. China Crisis began by using Steely Dan’s Walter Becker for their excellent “Flaunt The Imperfection” album but the effect was not of copying but of taking the somewhat quirky but nevertheless indefinable side of that band and ally it to the more experimental sonic leanings of their producer.

Now, I’m going to say it…

Roddy Frame took one of the most intense and most interesting portfolios of songs and just about wrecked it.

The choice of expert producers such as Tommy Lipuma and Russ Titelman, who had overseen the silky sounds of George Benson and Barbra Streisand together with long-time Steely Dan collaborator, Rob Mounsey, overlaid and weighed down and mismatched some of the most endearing lyrics it is possible to hear.

There’s brass sections and soulful backing vocalists, Synth basses and vocal sequencers. All manner of paraphernalia is wheeled out to make it sound as 1987 as possible and so make a bold attempt at shattering the subtlety and fragility that makes Aztec Camera (although then it was really only Roddy himself) such a national treasure.

Honestly, I loved this album at the time – not least because any Aztec Camera work was as rare as hen’s teeth – but now I would love to hear it all (with a couple of exceptions – of which more later) played in the more simple style that he now chooses these days. Hence, the clips largely post-date the album. It would be a very different and far more appreciated work.

Perhaps the best place to start is the first of the hits, “How Men Are” which is a remarkably sensitive and thoughtful song with nods to its soul ancestors with its P-E-R-S-P-E-C-T-I-V-E refrain giving the song an authenticity and depth not normally associated in an author so young. However, the syrupy production (doubtless borrowed from a sanitary protection commercial) renders the song less sincere and less enduring. But in a solo live context, all its heartfelt tenderness is on display, laid bare.

Actually, the first single and album opener, “Deep And Wide And Tall” would really give you every indication that all was well as it stylistically seemed to follow naturally from “Knife” and it’s terrific second single “Still On Fire” – like its predecessor “Deep And Wide And Tall” it had the misfortune to bypass the British record buying public entirely- and again on reissue – but it’s a shame as it is another beautiful pop song laden with melodies and sentiment and still had the very local feel of its precursors.

Of course, the follow-up single is the big one, the staple of every Tesco CD’s summer compilation (together with the Boo Radleys’ “Wake Up Boo”) “Somewhere In My Heart”. It’s a great pop song and actually a more natural successor to “Oblivious” than anything else. It has the same poppy drive and sticky chorus with hook piled on hook piled on hook. However, whilst this was handed over to Michael Jonzun, it still loses part of the obvious intelligence within its peppy production.

Although the superior and more enigmatic “Deep And Wide And Tall” might have been a preferable legacy, it’s a great 45 even now and, while performing it across the pop shows of Europe, this must have been the moment when Roddy thought he’d cracked it at last as it went bounding towards the Top 5. Coincidentally, CBS had put Prefab Sprout through a similar spurt for sales and they were also celebrating their only Top 10 hit simultaneously with “The King Of Rock N Roll” (a moment in their history I find indescribable) from the equally over-elaborate hit-hunting “From Langley Park To Memphis”. For the record, their album comes off only marginally better than “Love” as “Hey Manhattan” et al still manage to carry some of McAloon’s more ironic touches without being lost in the production – not least because they had always been a band more interested in the experimentation of the studio. However,  the original version of “Cars And Girls” for instance from the shelved “Protest Songs” sessions three years earlier was much more interesting and timely.

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I suspect both look back as an experience worth having but not with the songs with which they would most like to be remembered – especially when I would consider them two of the country’s greatest (and obviously) unsung songwriters.

“One And One” is a truly unmentionable aberration with sequencing and a soul duet, it is a real kick in the goolies for those who had waited three and a half years for new Frame material. “Everybody Is A Number One” is just too nakedly attempting to be a hit (especially in its remixed form) that it likewise seems unrecognizable for a man who had given us such delicate pieces in the past. “More Than A Law” and “Paradise” whilst interesting and incisive songs, both suffer from their intent being swamped by over-production.

However, one song seems to have been tailor-made for the world it was being thrust into – the majestic “Working In A Goldmine” which has tempo-changes, mood-swings and a lyrical sentiment that seems designed to fit into this multi-layered production. It has a guitar solo worthy of any Larry Carlton classic for Steely Dan and seems to be the only song on the album to be really comfortable in its own skin.

Which leaves a final thought for the finest song on the album and maybe Frame’s finest song “Killermont Street”. It has all the quality of a fine fine folk song – it is obviously deeply personal and paints a vivid picture in the unlikely setting  of Glasgow’s bus station, of all places.

It is sparse and utterly lovely and might well be one of the greatest songs you’ve never really listened to properly before – Frame fans aside. We may never have been to Killermont Street but we all know somewhere like it. Not even the production of “Love” can kill this song but it is so much better in its unadulterated form.

As I read this all back I feel guilty.

Guilty that I have been so critical of such a fine selection of songs (largely) and of one of the artists I have so admired for so many years but like “From Langley Park To Memphis”, “Love” was turned too much into a product of its times and of its ultimate corporate lords and masters. Like many decisions I myself took in 1987 – especially in the fashion stakes-  it probably all seemed like a good idea at the time.

And I really did adore it back then but I didn’t realise that it represented such a pact with the devil. I hope you all still like it but at least now can spend the time to appreciate that buried underneath some fretless bass noodling are some truly exceptional songs and tunes.

It just should and could have been so much better and as such, be better remembered.

Because for the four or five classics on this album when heard pure and clear in his wonderful vocal style -which manages to sound proud and fragile in equal measure -you will be hard pressed to find many better.grey-aztec-camera-strap-1

HARD OR HEAVY

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Hard rock?

Heavy metal?

I never really knew the difference.

I never really needed to because I didn’t really like either. And I didn’t much care for the long-haired and greasy looking customers who did. Inevitably, they were former pop fans who then denounced everything after their Damascene conversion to double denim and leather around the age of fourteen. They took their hardness and their heaviness very very seriously. No little girls music for them. This was Friday night and Tommy Vance… headbanging (normally in a circle) to the one rock record allowed at the school disco. For myself, I thought it was always quite funny that this supposedly tough and rather threatening  group were always so good at embroidery as they were always sowing logos and patches onto their sleeveless denim jackets.

Neither the disco set nor the Durannies could (or needed to) do that…

Strangely though as I have got older I’ve found I have quite a liking for what might have been termed hard rock or heavy metal. It’s a broad church actually including ZZ Top, AC DC, Led Zeppelin and even back to Glam Rock such as Slade and Kiss.

Allegedly, the foundation of this style was set by the Kinks when Dave Davies slashed the speaker cones of his amp and created the raw fuzz sound of “You Really Got Me”. It’s also incidentally seen as the initiator of the Punk sound as well so that 45’s influence in the later world puts it rightly in every critic’s Top 100 and every incipient garage band’s repertoire.

It is so seminal a track and so familiar that to try to take it anywhere seems impossible and yet this was how the world first heard of Van Halen. I am not normally a fan of remaking such well known records and trying to change them but there is something in this recording that actually helps to get to the definition of what hard rock is.

Nowadays, it is normally played with the preceding instrumental track of “Eruption” – Eddie Van Halen’s guitar gymnastic workout -tacked on as the introduction and in doing so, you understand the two pillars of this genre and indeed this band – Virtuosity and Volume.

It’s not perfect but it certainly sets the stall out for what’s to come and Van Halen were not a band that was backward in coming forward.

Unlike the previous heavier rock acts such as Led Zeppelin or Cream, Halen’s grounding seemed not to be in the Blues but – dare I say it – in Pop. It was just much much louder with Alex Van Halen’s thumping double bass drums and Michael Anthony’s thunderous bass propelling each of their songs to ever more impressive heights.

The band had initially been championed by Gene Simmons of Kiss who had produced their demos and they owe a lot to his band but they were able to surpass them easily. Their stage show had all the drama (if not the make-up) Detroit Rock City’s finest but they simply had better songs, better playing and a much much stronger vocalist.

Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing can soar and create intricate and quite beautiful shapes – remember he was brought in to lift Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” to a new plane – but it is when it is allied to the rasping blues scat of Dave Lee Roth that the band really takes off.

Because the audience who listened to bands like this were so off-putting, I never bothered but listen now to a song like “Jamie’s Crying” and it’s a pure pop record – there’s no darkness, nor devil worship, simply more decibels and no less enjoyable for that.

Likewise, whilst Metal academic analysts like to consider “Runnin’ With The Devil” as a successor to the demonic leanings of bands like Black Sabbath, it’s really just a metaphor for the youthful freedom of a traveling band. This time, a pulsing bass and the shriek of car horns lets an unstoppable riff that would blast through any radio.

But it’s still a pop record.

Not all of it comes off perfectly,  the closer “On Fire” is more  indicative of a band just finding their way and trying to be Led Zeppelin likewise “Atomic Punk” has its roots in Black Sabbath but “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” is another classic where Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat guitar – now residing in the Smithsonian Institute no less – lets rip once more. Ted Templeman’s production on the entire album remains so laser sharp that it really sets the template for all stadium rock and becomes very difficult to date as a consequence.

“Little Dreamer” on the other hand is a subtler song and reinforced  by an equally moderated but instantly recognizable vocal performance from Roth. He may have been all swagger, chest hair and highlights but he could sing brilliantly and was a showman from the premier division. The cover of “Ice Cream Man” would show his variety, his knowing sense of humor and ability to dabble in jazz phrasing quite easily, which was a theme he would revisit on “Diver Down” and in his solo work.

Do not under-estimate how successful Van Halen would prove to be. They are now the 20th best selling artist in the world and only AC/DC, Aerosmith & Metallica have sold more from their class. This debut album remains highly rated by critics and like “1984” would sell over 10 million copies. In fact, so successful was it that their follow-up Van Halen II was a virtual carbon copy.

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Sixties rebooted cover version… check (“You’re No Good”)

Virtuoso guitar instrumental show off… check (“Spanish Fly”)

Chorus heavy sing-a-long  Classic… check (“Dance The Night Away”)

Like AC/DC with Brian(Bon) and Angus, Van Halen was built on two astonishing on-stage larger than life personalities in Dave Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen both aiming for the spotlight. It was a hugely potent mix that moved from personality to ego and so inevitably would eventually very publicly combust as they both took their skills in different directions.

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That said, while that mix was brewing successfully, you were left with a sound that was nothing like as threatening as a lank-haired fourteen year old with a needle and thread but humorous, exciting and perfect power pop.

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WHEN ELECTRIC MEETS ECCENTRIC

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Everyone from Elvis Costello to Frank Zappa and even Steve Martin have been credited with composing the line “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” and there are times when I write this blog that I worry that I am confusing art-forms and that renders what I do pointless.

However, I assure you that, as this remains largely for my own amusement and I also serve the purpose of sending readers scurrying to their attics to rediscover those they once loved, I don’t worry too much about it.

Actually, the quotation seems to have come from satirical comedian and musician, Martin Mull, who released a fantastically titled country song “A Girl Called Johnny Cash” so I think even he had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he made his excellent utterance about music journalism.

The reason this all came to mind is that often I like to think about an artist or an album’s legacy – sometimes historically and often times personally. Some have meant so much to me at certain moments in life that revisiting them again takes on a greater importance than any CD remaster perhaps intends.

However, few artists, at least early in their careers think of their legacy. They want to be famous, be in the charts and appear on Top Of The Pops, whilst having a rip-roaringly good time. Few artists can have thought so little of their legacy at the time than The Associates.

This post-punk ensemble from Dundee largely led by the multi-octaved Billy Mackenzie and the brooding Alan Rankine (aided and abetted at various times by bassist Michael Dempsey and Martha Ladly previously of “Echo Beach” fame) made seemingly every effort to combust their talents at every opportunity.

Their third album “Sulk” had been funded by a huge advance from their new label WEA Records and the band proceeded to move into the Holiday Inn in Swiss Cottage for months – including a separate room for Billy’s pet dogs who were fed room service smoked salmon. If they read about something called a Jangle Piano, they ordered one up and brought it to the studio irrespective of costs. They swapped tom-toms for snares and recorded instruments underwater. Their belief being that the more money the company piled into the recordings, the more likely they were to back the artists. The stories of their excesses were legendary and yet, whilst profligate, in the studio they worked diligently to create something 100% different.

Everything was an act of defiance – the ironic, arty performances on Top Of The Pops; the cover of the supposedly cursed 30s song “Gloomy Sunday” (although when one considers Billy’s later sad suicide, it may not be so ‘supposed’) and of course, Mackenzie’s astonishing and unique vocal style which could leap from falsetto to baritone in a yodeling flash.

And then just as they hit the big time and were about to tour America, they split up and never reached such heights again.

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So when (to some of you, surprisingly) I write of The Associates’ “Sulk”‘s legacy consider these two facts for starters…

Firstly, Peter Ashworth’s sumptuous portrait of the band on the album sleeve resides now in the National Portrait Gallery.

Secondly, the darkly soaring “Party Fears Two”, with its  intro on a jangle piano no less, is just about one of the best singles of the 80s. When you first heard it, it was one of those musical epiphany moments.

It’s lyrically ambiguous, jaggedly dystopian and utterly brilliant…

Of course, this single rather over-shadowed the rest of the album but there are other redeeming points on “Sulk” even though it is still not an easy way to spend forty minutes or so.

The opening instrumental, “Arrogance Gave Him Up” was apparently designed as a show opener because Mackenzie was perennially late for the start of gigs and the band could begin while he readied himself. It’s then a further two minutes into the second track “No” before we are finally treated to the unique vocal and if you’re not prepared it is the most extraordinary and jarring experience.

“Nude Spoons” was written about a teenage acid trip and knowing that explains how difficult it can be to sit through as there are yelps and screeches throughout. I expect you had to be there. “Skipping” however was a real fan favourite and has Billy sounding remarkably like Scott Walker. It’s almost as if the album becomes progressively more listenable – no big openers but more uneven Joy Division obscurity moving track by track into glorious synth post-punk.

The closing bend of the album takes you through the pulsating “It’s Better This Way” into the two big singles – the latter of which, “Club Country” is a deliberately acerbic and withering view of the whole New Romantic movement of which The Associates were often mistakenly taken to be part. They may have considered themselves stylish but they were no show ponies.

Theirs was an eccentric sound matched with equally eccentric look and lifestyle glued together by a growing penchant for melody and riffs and Billy Mackenzie’s inimitable voice. If you get to hear their cover interpretations of Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover” for instance, you can truly understand why they were such a unique blend of alternative rhythms, that only true innovators would consider attempting.

Strangely, the last song on the album “nothinginsomethingparticular” was actually an instrumental version of their next single “18 Carat Love Affair” and to this day,nobody knows why it was included. The Top Of The Pops experience for that single was no less bizarre as Alan Rankine ordered two life size chocolate guitars from Harrods and pretended to play one of them whilst giving away bits of chocolate to the audience.

Seriously…

And then two weeks after appearing on the cover of Smash Hits,they split up. Mackenzie had to rest his voice and Rankine had frankly had enough and the ensuing tours were cancelled and The Associates as we knew them were no more.

Mackenzie would make one or two interesting records before his sad death but the unusual vocal gymnastics would become more familiar through Morrissey (who remained a long time admirer of the band). They were subversive long before the KLF and without the long hours of study that their concept took.

However, it doesn’t all work even on “Sulk”, but you witness is a band with a unique sound and story to tell that just manage to find their beautiful voice so majestically.

Sadly, it was only for a few brief minutes – a short but exciting legacy.

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GREAT SCOTT

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This whole concept has terrified me, since it first turned up on my newsfeed.

Keen readers who have consulted my humble blog and perused the section “The Twelve That Travel” will already know that “The Lexicon Of Love” is one of my very favourite albums by anyone ever.

My first encounter with ABC came when “Tears Are Not Enough” was first released and Record Mirror referred to the band as “spotty funksters” – don’t ask why that stuck with me but it did. I liked that record a lot but then we got “Poison Arrow” followed quickly by “The Look Of Love” and no matter how familiar those records are now, they are amongst the most powerful pop 45s of any decade.

In fact, this remix is one of my favorites by anyone also.

At sixteen years of age, this is the album that seemed to understand fully the highly dramatic nature (at least I thought they were) of my earliest relationship encounters; the anticipation and hope followed by the cruel dashing of aspirations. There were many days when I would happily put “a marriage proposal in the waste disposal” although things were never quite as developed as that!

I even remember sending one suddenly former girlfriend a copy of the single of “All Of My Heart” – you know…

“Once upon a time when we were friends, I gave you my heart, the story ends. No happy ever after, now we’re friends”.

Crikey, this album was a shorthand for every emotion it was possible to feel – a cut out and keep guide to hand out as necessary. As I said before, anguish never sounded so much fun.

So as I have spent the ensuing decades turning from being hopelessly romantic into romantically hopeless, the glimmer of expectation that “The Lexicon Of Love” could provide has never left me and so it has never been an album heading for the Oxfam racks.

But lo!

What profanity is this – “The Lexicon Of Love II”.

Robert de Niro or Andy Garcia?

How could they defile the memory of one of my favorite albums with a cheap follow-up and remake?

The answer is they didn’t. The whole experience has been created to remind you of all that was wonderful about the first album but with a slightly more knowing and more positive outlook. It’s all there in the opening track “Flames Of Venus” – Martin Fry’s clever lyrics (“let Roman Tiber melt away”), Anne Dudley’s swooping strings, and that wonderful bouncing pop drive that takes you back not just to 1982 but – and this is the important thing – to every other time you’ve felt that only “The Lexicon Of Love” will do.

About five years ago, I had the pleasure of being at the Royal Albert Hall for a performance of the original album with producer Trevor Horn and Anne Dudley  and the BBC Concert  Orchestra and it was as blissful as it sounds. Apparently, this very concert was the spur for Martin Fry to go away and try to put this sequel together which raises two issues for me.

Firstly, Trevor Horn was unavailable to produce and so his sound was replicated fairly accurately – I  certainly will not say updated because I don’t think it was a sound that ever dated in the first place. However, I don’t think any of Trevor Horn’s production work subsequently was ever as warm as this. I adore “Slave To The Rhythm”, “Left To My Own Devices” and “Welcome To The Pleasuredome” all but there is a coolness brought into them by the deftness of his production skill in creating such epic sounds. Dare I say, it might have been a blessing in disguise that he was otherwise engaged – I doubt we would have ended up with something as tender as “The Love Inside The Love”.

The second question ultimately is what would possess Martin Fry to even attempt this because I know I’m not the only one who had such affection for this classic original. The truth is that the band had truly disturbed their fans once or twice before. The follow-up album “Beauty Stab” removed all of the orchestration and arrangements and aimed for a darker rockier guitar-based feel. Simon Reynolds, a writer I admire on many subjects, called this album “one of the great career-sabotage albums in pop history”. He puts this alongside “Tusk” and “Sandinista” and he’s definitely right. We tried it and didn’t like it at all and I would suggest it was the biggest of the three (after all, I like “Tusk”).

For the next album, they inexplicably turned themselves into cartoon characters and created another bizarre album that bore little resemblance to the ABC with whom we had fallen in love  – although there was one exception which was the simply wonderful “Be Near Me” which only served to remind us all what we had lost.

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Their fourth album seemed to correct matters as “Alphabet City” saw a return of “the slyest rhymes and the sharpest suits” with “When Smokey Sings”, “King Without A Crown”and “The Night You Murdered Love”. They were all great pop singles with a modicum of the sheen and romanticism of the first album. It seemed a more fitting epitaph and although there were some interesting albums into the early 00s that seemed to, at least, make some amends for the aberrations of the past, without, of course, the impact of the very first release.

So now here we are in 2016 with a fantastic new album from ABC and it seems only right that finally Martin Fry’s story has a happy ending. The new work is not just a retread but has the positive nature of a man no longer in pursuit of the unattainable, comfortable in his life and celebrating how he finds his situation. “Viva Love” indeed.

Illness, bad career choices and a lack of relevancy had dogged his career and yet like Hugh Grant’s character in “Music & Lyrics” (he was assigned as his vocal coach for that movie) he has found that his effect on his audience is more profound than even he might have considered. “The Singer Not The Song” has more than just an autobiographical hint of how he feels about his career.

The joy of this story is that like Madness with “The Liberty Of Norton Folgate” and Squeeze with “From The Cradle To The Grave”, age need not be a barrier for our sometimes discarded former idols as they still have the irrresistible talent to make relevant and enjoyable records. He might now be 57 and the gold lame suit may have ended up in a toilet in Tokyo, but Fry has created an album that is capable of generating all the good feeling and buzz that I felt towards its illustrious 35 year old predecessor.

The only thing I really don’t like is the title but I doubt any record company would have even given him a second look for a release without it and they are certainly not going to  fall for The Alarm’s “Poppy Fields” trick again.

I think this sequel is less “The Godfather” and, instead, more like the end of “The Back To The Future” trilogy – the first film is unsurpassable in its imagery, storytelling and originality, the final film retains the humor and knowingness of the first, with a simple exciting story to tell and resolves in a satisfying and tidy conclusion. “Back To The Future II” needs a degree in astro-physics to plot the changes and swerves – it’s complicated and leaves you gasping desperately for some sort of swift realignment (that’ll be “Beauty Stab” et al).

A wonderful fulfilling 30 year travel backwards and forwards in time – bravo Martin McFry (I thang yew!).

This could have been a cheap cash-in but doesn’t just replay the old themes but substitutes a more worldly wise view. The puns and the rhymes are still there as well as the timeless quality of glorious orchestration and whilst redolent of its parent, never defiles the place it has in the cherished memory of its followers.

This album is full of vigor and character but retaining ABC’s recognizable tone (“Confessions Of A Fool” and “I Believe In Love”) but the narrative is also beautifully constructed in songs like “The Ship Of The Seasick Sailor”. There’s nods to the original all over, lyrically and musically and I defy you not to break out in a broad smile once it all starts to kick in.

It’s now Romance – and not Anguish – that never sounded so much fun. You know what… after all this time, even I might just give it a try.

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CHARITY CASE

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Everything about Paul Young’s “No Parlez” album cover screams 1980s. The metallic shiny suit, the abundant use of hair product, the aztec border, the typeface that is almost comic sans. Tailor-made for any model in the Ford XR series, one would imagine.

It probably comes as little surprise that this is also the album that apparently turns up most often and in the greatest numbers in the record bins of charity shops.

So this is an album that hits at the very heart of what I try humbly to do here in reinvigorating interest in those once much-loved albums now sadly discarded – and there were just shy of a million copies of this in the UK alone that could be troubling those noble souls manning the Oxfam drop-offs, so this may be timely.

Certainly, I was one of those who was more than happy to buy “No Parlez” in 1983 as it hit the top of the album charts on no less than four occasions and was certified triple-platinum. The artist himself, was a fella you couldn’t really help but like – good-looking but laddish  (he’d worked at the Vauxhall factory in Luton), smart but not too flash and you couldn’t deny he had a fantastic voice. So was he just a bit too everyman – in a world of Boy Georges and Simon Le Bons, was he just a bit too like the rest of us (or at least how we wanted to be)?

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Yet in truth, he and his records are still viewed with more affection than those of his mime-loving contemporary Howard Jones or the pocket-sized talent of Nik Kershaw.

The simple truth is that not only does the cover give off a nostril shredding whiff of Aramis but everything about the recording itself dates it. Synth-drums, fretless bass, frenetic backing vocals all give it a sound that was absolutely indicative of its moment in time.

However, I contend that whilst it is not exactly a lost pop classic (though there are parts that certainly are) it is the most wonderfully experimental and unique record.

Let’s start at the beginning (as good a place as any) – the opener was one of his finest singles “Come Back And Stay” and every hallmark of the album is represented in its three and a half minutes (incidentally, it was also a fantastic extended remix). At the heart of all Young’s best work is the virtuoso bass playing of his long-time collaborator, Pino Palladino, who appeared on so many recordings of the early 80s that for a short time he had more appearances on the Tube than any single act. His is a unique gliding sound that plucks, slaps and pops but provides an unique sounding simultaneous riff and rhythm.

Meanwhile, there are his backing vocalists – ‘The Fabulously Wealthy Tarts’ (so called because when asked their name once by Jools Holland, replied that they didn’t have one and he could name them as long as it was nothing too tarty – what a wag!). They provide an updated ‘call and response’ style of backing originally favoured by artists such as Ray Charles on old rhythm and blues recordings. It brings a commentary and narrative to the lyrics and a texture and atmosphere to the recordings.

In his next album, Young would replace them largely with a very talented and experienced group of session singers (including hit maker Jimmy Helms) who would later become one-hit wonders Londonbeat, who provided a more classically soul super-tight backing but so lost some of the original flavour that Maz and Kim brought.

This, I think, is the magic of this album. Paul Young had a wonderful blue-eyed soul voice but instead of making an obvious soul record, together with his producer Laurie Latham, they placed his voice in the least soulful context they could find. There’s no real brass but plenty of loping  effects courtesy of the always tight Royal Family; the backing is more Human League than Hues Corporation; the atmosphere is of production rather than performance.

Sometimes, it works brilliantly like the title track “No Parlez” – here they assigned a different sound to each chord to create a dazzling sonic palette. On others, like “Iron Out The Rough Spots” it  sounds laboured and there really is just too much going on.

Of course, there is history behind this deliberate decision. Despite being a member of the novelty act “Streetband” who had  had a novelty hit with “Toast” in 1978, Paul Young had moved on to be the lead singer of should band the Q-Tips. They were one of the hottest live acts, much loved by audiences and critics but their unique soul sound, for reasons unknown, couldn’t shift a unit and after two non-selling albums, Paul Young left to go solo.

It would seem that the experience left him determined to try something entirely new.

However, whilst this is a heavily produced album, it never loses sight of what a great singer Paul Young was capable of being.

And what a brave interpreter of other’s songs he was too.

There’s only one place to begin this section and it’s the massive number one single “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)” which had been a rather lacklustre Marvin Gaye b-side to “Too Busy Thinking ‘Bout My Baby”. Gaye’s version was comparatively bouncy and portrayed its singer as something of a sexual braggart – think Dion’s “The Wanderer”. However, Paul Young’s version completely transforms the original, with him taking on a far more tragic air. The mystical bass line riff is one of the most recognisable intros to any record (though apparently borrowed from Stravinsky) and the sustained bass keeps pace with each of the singer’s pleas almost replying or emphasising each new emotional nuance. It marked a true virtuoso performance.

I have always felt that this single was put together with an eye to Marvin Gaye’s then current album “Midnight Love” – that spawned the incredible “Sexual Healing” – and was created as a consideration of how 1983’s Marvin Gaye would handle the song as opposed to 1968’s. It is a revelation of a recording.

This single, of course made Paul Young a star, together with the undying support of “The Tube” who featured him regularly and exposed his incredible live capabilities.

“Love Of The Common People” had been a failed single but again proved to be a masterful interpretation of Nicky Thomas old Trojan 45. Re-released around Christmas time, it also was able to demonstrate the astonishing mix of soul and contemporary production that makes the original obsolete.

Then of course, there is the thorny issue of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” – a brave choice but probably a reckless one. Certainly, the music critics never forgave him this. Really – it’s not bad just unnecessary.

The fact is that Paul Young had a great ear for a great song and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was not a song that would have been bothering the majority of the HMV-entering public so why not give it a wider audience. The fact is that the song took on something of a sacred indie status and by the time of the release of “No Parlez”, it had probably gained a hands-off status (later it would become a hit in its own right).

But, when you consider the Marvin Gaye reinterpretation and his later discovery of Daryl Hall’s previously slumbering “Everytime You Go Away”, you realise that this is a singer who really understands a great song’s quality, irrespective of its origins. Later, he would deliver a moving version of “Soldier’s Things” by Tom Waits and on the Anniversary remaster there is a demo of Tears For Fears’ superlative “Pale Shelter” which although later would become the third (and best) single release from “The Hurting”, had been initially unsuccessful and so tried out for consideration on “No Parlez”. Ultimately, it’s a little too delicate for his style of performance.

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But there is plenty of original material on the album and this is where the variability emanates. “Sex” is obviously an attempt to create something of Prince-like blow-out – then little known in the UK – that only just stops itself from lapsing into sniggering. “Broken Man” is a lovely vocal performance, rather spoiled by its kitchen-sink production. “Tender Trap” in contrast, benefits from it as it becomes an unusual pop song.

The highlights however, are firstly, the title track “No Parlez” which as stated earlier was something of a masterpiece from Laurie Latham, the producer, who had studied George martin’s techniques and looked to create all sorts of different sounds by tweaking existing instruments – pencils were thrown into pianos, for instance. It has a superbly layered approach with a tremendous interplay with the backing vocals.

Secondly, is my favourite, “Ku Ku Kurama” which if ever a song was an ear worm it is this one. Going back and listening again, it has the same hypnotic effect, for me it created in 1983. There’s a circular bass accompanying a sharply picked guitar and the manic backing of The Wealthies just in the first ten seconds and then a low-pitched growl of a vocal which is then answered by his own real voice. The lyrics seem to be some eastern mantra but ultimately mean nothing and yet seem to mean everything. It is a wonderful piece of  pop madness that you wouldn’t normally think as Paul Young’s metier.

As time went on, Paul Young lapsed more and more into being a regular soul singer. Of course his version of “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted” is superbly performed but there are no surprises, no interesting makeovers, no experimentation. He misses the Royal Family who were able to create such a different kind of recording that really defined the pop sound of its time. It is almost like he has been dragged back towards the Q Tips in an effort to try again. Happily, for his own amusement, he keeps experimenting and has a Tex-Mex band called Los Pacaminos – so he’s never lost his own desire to move in different directions.

The vey nature of the recording does date it quite precisely but I feel confident that if you listen to it again (whilst not 100% works) it is richer and more imaginative than you might remember. So think twice before heading down to Scope.

2015-01-17 No Parlez and Basil Brush