All posts by Tony Harris

FIGHT CLUB

Sometimes you can easily forget just how successful The Police actually were. The summer of 1983, which is often described as the summer of “Thriller” was really the summer of “Synchronicity”. This was an album that sold bucketloads all over the world.

And so had their previous album, today’s subject, “Ghost In The Machine” which was released in the autumn of 1981 to much critical acclaim, as it was seen to move the band’s trademark reggae-rock sound into new poppier territories with keyboard flourishes and a highly effective saxophone backing.

In truth, The Police are synonymous with “critical acclaim” and there is endless debate about their finest album – four of the five they released appear in the Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 500 ever. However, this album ranks the highest at #323 which would imply that there was a considerable amount of debate still. Indeed, this album’s predecessor, “Zenyatta Mondatta”, which was the only one of them not to be included by the august publication, has its defenders who claim it should be considered the best.

So which one should be there?

None of them.

If ever there was a band who forced pointless filler into their work at even their earliest stages, it is The Police. Even, their worldwide smash “Synchronicity” has to endure the successive horrors of “Mother” and “Miss Gradenko”. They may be musical jokes for the band but for the listener they are tired and destructive.

It is a selfish and combative attitude that comes across all their work.

I have chosen “Ghost In The Machine” because I think it is the album least damaged and most harmonious but “Hungry For You (J’auras Toujours Faim Du Toi)” comes across as exactly what it is – a French New Wave song (and doesn’t that sound hideous even as a concept). “Omegaman” was mysteriously picked by the record company to be the first single, but rightly over-ridden by the band, has an interesting premise borrowed form the science fiction film about being the last man on earth but is turgid and lacks real energy – it would have been #1 because everything they released went there however.

“Demolition Man” sounds other-wordly and subtle when coming from the larynx of Grace Jones when she covered it but here it is over-long and over-blown. “One World (Not Three)” introduces a new phenomenon of the globally-conscious Rock Band – a mantle that would be taken after their implosion by U2 and then subsequently Coldplay (a fact lamented by Andy Summers in a recent interview), where bigger issues would be forced into the public’s headspace, sometimes well and sometimes – as here – a little too earnestly.

Interestingly, in 1982, The Police only played one date in the UK in support of this album which was at the Gateshead International Stadium which was a ragged if largely powerful performance but look who’s lurking (and doubtless observing)  lower on what was an excellent bill…

So why am I bothering with this album at all?

Well, it has moments of unsurpassable quality. Not least the global smash “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”, which picks up the “when eloquence escapes you” of predecessor “De Do Do Do De Da Da Da” from “Zenyatta Mondatta” – even though it actually comes originally from sessions way back in 1977. Whilst all the album was recorded in Montserrat, strangely this song which was the exception being recorded in Montreal is the one that has the mellowest vibe and even now has a sunniness that the band often failed to replicate.

Certainly, Sting would never be this bright again until he went solo.

However, the band also wanted to forge its political awareness and “Rehumanize Yourself” attacks the malignant racist strain that was still rampant in riot torn Britain of 1981. But it is their strong attack on the situation in Northern Ireland – then a very real issue – that delivers, I believe their finest and often forgotten (#2 hit notwithstanding) “Invisible Sun”. A looming countdown followed by an ominous bass line that simply exudes claustrophobia but then explodes into an angry chorus. This is the band at their tense best.

Sting had been living in Ireland at the time, and felt very aware of the explosive situation there and so it has a reality about it that overcomes any doubts as to its legitimacy.

“Spirits In The Material World” is a great album opener and although a little pretentious in its content – it is Sting after all – it does have an energy and oddness with stabbing sax and jagged rhythm that turns it into a real ear worm and all the more enjoyable for it.

So what was The Police’s problem?

Basically they didn’t seem to like each other much. Sting and Stewart Copeland regularly fell out, leaving Andy Summers to try and broker peace. Parts were recorded separately. The band’s songs were regularly rejected by Sting – “Rehumanise Yourself” was written by Copeland but then rewritten by Sting who didn’t like the lyrics at all.  The cover itself, came about because they couldn’t agree on a visual and the whole process was underlined with barely suppressed aversion to one another.

They were just too angry – does anyone hit drums as hard as Stewart Copeland? Has reggae, the gentlest of genres ever sounded so ill at ease? Apparently, it was worse during Synchronicity and the cancelled album after that.

Even in later reunions and meetings, the aggravation they felt still existed.

But at the end of the album comes two unheralded saving graces – Sting’s “Secret Journey” and Copeland’s virtually Balearic fore-runner, the exquisite “Darkness” which exhibit all the subtlety that you would expect from fine musical exponents such as these three.

These two closers really do redeem an album that had opened so wonderfully with the three big singles and then meandered as all Police albums did.

Sting’s best solo work “The Dream Of The Blue Turtles”, “Nothing Like The Sun” and especially “Ten Summoner’s Tales” would exercise far greater quality control and deliver far more accomplished long-player material. Perhaps, it helps being in charge entirely.

So the conclusion is really what we have always known that genius and its expression often takes a great deal of tension for it to reach its zenith. For The Police, I believe, we all have had to put up with too many of their workings in the margin – their dry runs and practices. The antipathy that could exist forced them to just force some of their material in to keep the other parties happy and as long as there was some killer material, it didn’t matter. Perhaps Im suggesting that their conflict made them lazy in order to avoid further aggravation.

Ah but when they did get it right…

Maybe, the critics just get it wrong and they were just a brilliant singles band all along.

WALT JABSCO KNOWS. DON’T ARGUE

As the Seventies turned into the Eighties and the violent but brief flame of Punk had all but burned out, the coolest sounds morphing into the pop charts from the underground stemmed from the contemporaneous revivals of Mod and Ska. Nowadays, these records  tend to be lumped together (especially in Father’s Day compilations) but they were really two very different movements who did not always see eye to eye.

This is a story of just such a difference of opinions.

Let’s start with “just who is Walt Jabsco?”

You’ll know him as the 2-Tone Man who appeared on the sleeve and label of all early 2 Tone record releases. The design came from Jerry Dammers himself with help from Specials bass player, Horace Panter, and designers John Sims & David Storey and you know it now from the sharp suit, the shades and the pork pie hat but it was actually based on a photo of Peter Tosh from an old album called “The Wailing Wailers” – that’s him on the right; aloof and super cool, dwarfing Mr Marley in the middle.

The first release on Two Tone was of course, the definitive “Gangsters” by the Special AKA, which is still one of the most feverishly exciting debut singles ever made. It borrows from Prince Buster’s seminal ska classic “Al Capone” and twists it to a more personal theme.

The band had been on tour in France and were held accountable for damage in a hotel for which another band (allegedly The Damned) had actually been responsible. Their guitars were confiscated, the police were called and a terrific hit single was born that told their story.

The intro about “Bernie Rhodes knows. Don’t argue” was a reference to their then manager the legendary Bernie Rhodes who also looked after The Clash and was apparently a king-size spouter of bullshit.

The record was originally released in May 1979 in a limited run of 5000 which were stamped by the band themselves and then distributed by Rough Trade. Not many have lasted the course of time. I’m happy to say that mine has.

In the summer it gained its full release, having been made record of the week by David Jensen – later it would justifiably become NME’s Record of the Year in a year of tremendous competition – 1979 saw “London Calling”, “Brass In Pocket” and “Good Times” to name but three. We then witnessed one of the most iconic and photogenic gatherings on Top Of The Pops as the sharp-suited, multi-racial,  full-on yet slightly detached Special AKA burst into our collective conscience, all bounce and menace, propelled by Roddy Radiation’s spitting guitar.

The B-side was credited to The Selecter but this was not the band we know but a recording from a sideline of drummer John Bradbury’s together with Neol Davis. The remnants of this recording unit would form the actual Selecter when they brought in the fabulous Pauline Black as vocalist. In the meantime, this version of The Selecter left us with the kind of eerie and brooding please of instrumental exotica that would so later fascinate Jerry Dammers as his Two Tone vision moved away from just being about the Ska Revival.

Dammers was very much the mastermind of 2 Tone and used its startling imagery as a mark of quality. Throughout the end of 1979 until the summer of 1981 and the Specials’ dissolution as “Ghost Town” reached number one, the sound of 2 Tone ruled the airwaves and Walt Jabsco’s appearance on a sleeve – or the paper labels that all singles were given for their first run (it will come as little surprise to my fellow anoraks that I naturally have a full set in this rarer format) – signified a recording of interest, vitality and a downright good time.

Madness and The Beat famously launched their careers here and collectors now hunt down the Bodysnatchers, the Swinging Cats and of course The Selecter to hear the full gamut. Dammers guarded the legacy of 2 Tone preciously and this caused problems with many of the label’s charges and, indeed, his own band – for whom he remains the only dissenting member of the now-reformed group. His changes of direction brought new bands such as The Higsons and The Friday Club onto the roster but failure loomed (which makes these really quite hard to get hold of now) and by 1984, only really the Special AKA now without their former frontmen were gaining any traction and that was running out.

However this forthright adherence to his vision brought him into conflict much earlier on. This time Mod band, The Lambrettas were his target.

The Mod revival had also cropped up around 78-79, largely on the back of the release of the excellent “Quadrophenia” which had been an accurate depiction of Mod Culture in the mid-60s as brought to life by The Who’s album of the same name. This revival had really ended up being the catalyst for the success of The Jam and to a lesser extent Secret Affair and The Truth – again it felt an antidote to the bloated nature of 70s Rock but also, to be honest, the grubbiness of punk, with its smart fashion and cool outlook. It was a fairly Southern based movement (like the original) but coincided with the Midland-based Ska breakout (Madness notwithstanding).

Of course, there was overlap but Mods were not Skinheads and whilst the twain would meet – it wasn’t often.

Now, at this juncture, I think it’s fair to say that most of us believe that cover versions can be better than the originals – Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” exhibit A – but you might be surprised that one of my favorites to fall into this category is the swinging ska-like “Poison Ivy” by Mod cash-ins The Lambrettas.

It’s a record that can still get a floor bouncing and had more energy than most of its predecessors and I include a version by the Stones – so I must be serious.

Now, to be fair, the band came from the hallowed Mod ground of Brighton and would go on to deliver a surprisingly accomplished album, “Beat Boys In The Jet Age” – all of which was even more surprising when you consider they were released on Rocket Records, Elton John’s label.

The band and label though it would be a fun idea to release a version of their chart-bound hit under the monicker of “Two-Stroke Records” which was a nod to the Mod obsession with scooters. They also featured a cut-out stenciled Mod to mimic 2 Tone’s Mr Jabsco, complete with checkerboard banded motif.

The irascible and protective Dammers apparently blew a gasket and a vehemently worded ‘cease and desist’ instruction was swiftly sent out to all parties concerned.

And thus, yet another collector’s rarity was born.

GOTCHA!

As most of you know, I am still an inveterate record collector.

Although I don’t have a turntable…

I’m not one of these new fangled vinyl johnnies who believes everything sounds better on vinyl. It doesn’t and certainly not if it was recorded after punk. If you want to enjoy vinyl play an old Motown 45 on a Dansette or better still a jukebox because that’s how vinyl  in its pomp was meant to be heard. Treble way up, bass way up and a needle that would plough a furrow through the thickest plastic.

But that’s not for my records… no indeed.

Inevitably they are lovingly removed from their packaging, catalogued and placed in some far more durable PVC protection and finally, boxed and stored within a bizarre coding system that would perhaps test even the greatest of minds at Bletchley Heath.

So I don’t play them and I very rarely sell them but I adore them. If I want to hear the music I undoubtedly have the CD versions and you, dear readers, already are well versed in my Remaster obsession, which is equally nurtured and indulged.

But the vinyl tells a story and so I often buy on the basis of that. Of course, I’m a great completist and have entire discographies and libraries of material by artist or label or genre etc but they all inevitably have some story that initially piqued my interest.

And here is one such…

In earlier pieces – especially about the truly divine Mel & Kim – I have been something of an apologist for Stock Aitken & Waterman who whilst they did inflict plenty of cookie cutter chart fodder that blighted the airwaves as the 80s turned into the 90s, were more pioneering and innovative than they have ever really been given credit for.

Pete Waterman is a man who truly knows his musical history and his Hit Factory at PWL was designed to mirror the success of its Detroit based predecessor in terms of its ambition and scope. But Pete was not just some fly by night chancer – he had worked with Motown in the US, had been instrumental in the burgeoning success of Northern Soul  – not least the classic “Footsee” by Wigan’s Chosen Few, one of the first records ever commercially remixed to become a hit.

As if that wasn’t enough, he had also been one of the first managers for a band called the Coventry Automatics who would transform into the Special AKA and launch the whole 2 Tone movement.

Pete was no impostor and knew instinctively a great sound. Obviously, we know him more for his Italo-Disco Eurobeat concoctions but he was a student of many genres.

Hence at the height of his success, he was keen for SAW to showcase their talents and that they too could be the hippest and coolest and so created a Rare Groove classic called “Roadblock” which would eventually reach the top 20 in 1987. It was a tune so hip that sounded like it had come from the GoGo scene of Washington DC or a mid-70s Average White Band album. It was just so authentic – it didn’t sound like it came from South London that’s for sure.

So they released it on a 12″ Promo on Lynx Records and sent it to Club DJs where it was considered a lost classic and that one or two guilty parties would then swear they had been playing for years. All reference to its original source, were removed by Waterman himself to make sure that the ruse was foolproof.

1000 of these were released at the time but I suspect several were rather angrily disposed of by the duped hipsters because naturally enough there was frenetic backtracking when the truth was later revealed that it was none other than Kylie and Jason’s producers.

Of course they had known all along!

It then of course, had a regular release and went on to be a considerable success around the world.

Besides the now very rare Lynx pressing and the UK release, I have somehow accumulated three further copies of it – “No Block Til Deutschland” no less…

          

It may well be the genuinely beautiful cover design by John Warwick and Jeremy Pearce which mimicked space-age 50s American design with Wile. E. Coyote like lettering that makes it such a treat every time I come across a new copy in some long-lost crate.

Of course, the record would become even more notorious as they took on the huge #1 single from MARRS who had sampled part of the record for their own smash “Pump Up The Volume”, but without permission. That said, theirs was a record created wonderfully from many many different samples and that was the heart of its success.

Waterman, however,  took a highly publicised stand against  this as copyright theft and as such, “Roadblock” managed both to create mysteriously in one year and destroy utterly in the next, SAW’s underground credibility.

Inevitably, records with such interesting vinyl history really only trouble the archivists and anoraks if they’re any good and this record is still a belter, that’s for sure.

ANNUS MIRABILIS

I make absolutely no apologies for this latest musing being unashamedly partial.

It’s the Rolling Stones for goodness sake and frankly they could turn up anywhere in the world and play penny whistles and kazoo (owners of 1967’s “Between The Buttons” can surprisingly enjoy the latter) and I would be deliriously happy but by any account, this has been an extraordinarily productive and affirming year from the band.

Of course, in the maelstrom of the tragedies of artistes taken from us too early in 2016 – especially, Bowie, Prince and disastrously, George Michael (of which more on another occasion) – we have spent a year looking backwards and lamenting lost talent. We rue the paucity of genuine long-term artists and the fragmentation of our shared musical experiences and yet at the end of the year, the UK’s #1 album (and indeed 14 other countries’ as well) was delivered by a band whose four confirmed members combined age would be close to 300 years and who recorded the album in only three days.

And strangely, it sounds as fresh as a daisy.

Ladies & Gentlemen… The Rolling Stones.

I’ll come back to “Blue & Lonesome” because this year has seen some incredible highlights  from the band. There was Julien Temple’s entirely captivating documentary on the early life of Keith Richards. The “Ole Latina America” documentary from which was culled the mind-blowing finale of their “Exhibitionism” presentation (now touring the world) where you in glorious 4D the actual onstage experience was recreated and you actually felt you were playing alongside the band in front of thousands.

“Exhibitionism” also gave us the steeliest, the costumes, the guitars, the logos and the opportunity to listen to and manipulate actual tracks a if in their studio. It will come as little surprise that it really was an absolute highlight of my year.

I had the pleasure of visiting with a dear friend of mine, Paul Burke, whose “World’s Shortest Radio Show” on his blog (paulburkecreative.com) is something I would most heartily recommend to all of you who enjoy these whimsical musical reminiscences. He is also far more prolific than I am.

Paul made an interesting comment while were at the Exhibition that unless you were a fully paid-up member of the Stones brotherhood (like me obviously), it was still very easy to think that apart from the twice a decade mega tours, there was no real output from the band since “Start Me Up” and “Tattoo You” – largely held up as the last half decent Stones album from back in 1981.

In that time, however, there have been 6 studio albums, numerous live albums and various greatest hits sets accompanied by new material. Obviously, they are not as great as their classic recordings but it’s hard to hit the societal nail on the head with “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” when quite clearly as a multi-millionaire you can…

However, when you have the ability and appetite they clearly still have, there are always opportunities for the odd gem. Their previous studio album, “A Bigger Bang” with a little judicious editing of the track listing from 16 down to, say 10, and you would have an exceptionally accomplished ‘return to form’.

Perhaps only aficionados will have noticed that the Stones actually had two new releases in the back end of the year because they also released “Havana Moon” which was (yet another!) tour recording which was largely the same charge-through the expected set-list they have been knocking out since this tour began in 2012. It is the film of the show and the million plus audience – hitherto untouched by the magic of the Glimmer Twins live – that is so special.

And yet lurking in the undergrowth between the hyperactive “Brown Sugar” and the steroidal “Satisfaction”, lies one of those gems that can illustrate the kind of throbbing menace the Stones invented for rock music. Driven by the brilliant Darryl Jones, “Out Of Control” (from 1994’s “Voodoo Lounge” – probably the best of the six) manages to carry all the pre-requisite threat and bluesy-funk that they do so well.

No wonder, the crowd goes nuts.

So there’s a record-breaking tour, a multi-media exhibition, a live album and film, two documentaries and their new #1 album – oh and Mick became a dad again! – where was the inspiration coming from?

Actually, there was one more exceptionally fine release from the band in the early part of the year which was the reissue of their brilliant 1995 album “Stripped” which was their attempt at a semi-unplugged recording – some virtually acoustic and some pared back in comparatively small venues. For that album they had had a real trawl through some of their lesser-known songs and produced a really interesting bluesy recording. It’s a period when all seems happy in the camp and everybody is really enjoying the experience.

My favorite has always been “The Spider And The Fly” – a little-known B-side to “Satisfaction” – which is a wonderful mix of walking blues and hip 60s with its tongue firmly in its cheek.

The Stones have been meticulous recently in looking back at their recorded history and the expanded version of “Stripped” is a really interesting sideways glance at a band you think you know only too well. My suspicions are that in looking back at the bare nature of those now 20 year old sessions, gave them a nudge to revisit a purer recording style more akin to their early days.

So at the tail end of 2015, the Stones got together in the studio having suffered from something of a recording block and for three days laid down an album of recordings of some of their blues favourites. And note well, these are not tracks from the Starter Pack of Blues Classics but some wonderfully obscure tracks from artists they had long championed such as Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. Indeed, it is the mutual admiration for the Blues that brought Keith and Mick that fateful day back at the beginning of the 60s on Dartford Station platform.

It’s easy to forget that this is the band that took the menacing “Little Red Rooster” to number one in 1964 and opened up the Blues to an entirely new audience. Yet here are Mick’s vocals over fifty years later sounding just as dark and leering on “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and especially, “Commit A Crime” – his performance is really the highlight of the whole recording; you can easily forget what a good singer he is. And this is allied to his monumental harmonica wailing, which cuts through like a laser on tracks like “Little Rain” and crunching opener, “Just Your Fool”.

But Keith is also having the time of his life also, with his whole playbook of Blues licks put to great use. I always think the core of the Stones sound comes from the link-up between Keith and Charlie (rather than the bass – although once again Darryl Jones is faultless) and this gives them a unique loose tightness if that can possibly make sense. The loping “All Of Your Love” is a truly epic example.

“Ride ‘Em On Down” is the riot you would imagine could have been recorded in any New Orleans studio and it may be shambolic but it defies you not to tap that dashboard. It surely seems to work for Kristen Stewart.

The fact is this is no band-wagon jumping effort from the longest living dinosaurs on Planet Rock but simply an expression of what they’ve always loved. They’ve never forgotten the Blues and it’s there in every album they make – exhibit A  – “Midnight Rambler” – but it has been a while since they were so pure to its essence in every aspect of the recording. Try “Hate To See you Go” and you can see over fifty years of recording lineage mapped out for you.

And whilst only the most loyal fans will remember that this is where they came from, what is very clear is that the Rolling Stones certainly haven’t forgotten.

The Stones have been the Alpha of British Blues for decades and from their breakthrough has come Eric Clapton (who guests on this album), Fleetwood Mac, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin and hundreds more that defined a sound that was the basis of Rock Music to the present day. Perhaps it is an awareness of their own mortality that persuaded the Glimmer Twins to return and show their collective respect to their very own wolf mother, The Blues.

And yet with “Blue And Lonesome”, they will surely be the Omega too. Don’t be surprised when some of the more musically astute current artists, such as Ed Sheeran or Jamie Lawson suddenly start dropping “Smokestack Lightnin'” or “Hoochie Coochie Man” into their live sets or guest spots, in an attempt to strengthen their links with their predecessors’ legacies. The Blues has never left us but when it is handled in the hands of the masters who have no reason for doing it other than for love, you easily remember what a truly powerful force they still are.

At a time, when enduring talent is really becoming something of a premium, who could have conceived that it would be the Rolling Stones who would give everyone a welcome refresher course in all that first excited us about listening to records.

 

 

 

STILL WALKING THE WALK

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Obviously, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying another Record Store Day session to coincide with Black Friday but whilst that is ostensibly about the joy of vinyl, let’s not forget that Christmas is coming and with it some of the year’s best  and most surprising remasters and  deluxe editions. The office postroom has been busy coping…

One I had been particularly looking forward to was the 30th anniversary reissue of Hipsway’s self-titled debut album which I certainly remember spinning aplenty all those years ago.

Of course, for most they are a band who were just really a one-hit wonder with the astounding 45, “The Honeythief”, back in 1986 but I had always liked back at the album quite fondly – and sadly, not many of us bought it.

They were a band built around a very sinuous sound that managed to sound languid and clipped at the same time, combining the deep Bowie-esque vocals of Grahame Skinner with the strong pulsing bass-lines of Johnny McElhone and the laser-like pickings of Pim Jones. Try the extended versions that are included and you can see just how tight a platform they were capable of laying down and unlike many remixes they add more to our understanding of the songs’ various dynamics.

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And I shall say it now, it sounds better than it did 30 years ago and genuinely sounds entirely fresh for about 90% of the whole album. It’s a real treat. Think the best album Nile Rogers didn’t produce – crossing Duran Duran with “Let’s Dance” and throwing in all the spikiness and intelligence of Orange Juice – who I am now truly starting to believe were just about the most influential band you’ve never listened to properly.

So why weren’t Hipsway more successful?

Let’s start with McElhone as, firstly, it allows me to put in one of my favourite ever Top Of The Pops clips, and secondly, because he is a man with an impressive credentials. His time in Hipsway is bookended by teenage stardom courtesy of Altered Images and over a decade’s worth of success with Texas.

In 1983, Altered Images had one final tilt at the big time with a more mature recording called “Bite” which is another of those albums I still cherish and probably will get round to expounding upon here one of these days. We still had the simply heavenly Claire Grogan warbling but there was a more sophisticated backing that borrowed those terrific choppy Chic riffs so beloved of Postcard Records and would emerge even more powerfully in Hipsway.

I am not going to apologize for wanting to watch that clip again.

Sadly, Altered Images broke up after the comparative failure of “Bite” – shame on you all – and McElhone teamed up with the velvet voice of Grahame Skinner and together with drummer Harry Travers put together a suitably enigmatic portfolio of songs. Being part of Glasgow’s scene which included the criminally ignored Friends Again and The Bluebells, they would soon come to the attention of the avid talent scouts who were all over the city at the time and they were soon signed to Mercury Records who put a lot of faith in their likely success.

The music press got right behind them too, particularly Record Mirror, and were continuously espousing the band’s virtues. I certainly remember them being very impressed by the promotional give-away of Hipsway-branded socks, which seemed a merchandising first at the time. NME were a little sniffy at first, thinking them too obviously influenced by Bowie’s enigmatic “Station To Station” – though wasn’t every new-wave-isn band of the time? – although I felt it’s “Let’s Dance” that leaves the bigger imprint.  Eventually, even they would come round and announce their status as likely contenders.

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However, the record buying public had chosen to ignore all the hype and the excellent first two singles “The Broken Years” and the majestic “Ask The Lord” simply failed to sell and things looked bad. Nowadays, it is certain that a record company would not keep faith but hats off to Mercury they stuck with it and gradually, radio picked up on the sublime “The Honeythief” as mysterious a song as you will ever hear, set to a dark threatening dance rhythm.

The rest of the album has many similar highlights in a vein that seems to presage the soon-to-be massive INXS. “Bad Thing Longing” and “Upon A Thread” keep this slightly threatening claustrophobic mood that had made the single such a success. Meanwhile, another track “Tinder” was chosen by McEwans Lager (another true 80s artifact) as the soundtrack for one of their (hugely expensive for the time) commercials. Admittedly, it may not look like it now but it was a real zeitgeist ad.

They had the look and they undoubtedly had the sound. HIpsway seemed to be right at the very point of world domination.

But despite a hit in the US, it just never happened. They disappeared quicker than they had taken to appear. McElhone left to set up Texas. A second album took three years to make and sank without trace and now Hipsway seem just a footnote in pop history.

So how can this have happened?

The answer lies to my mind in the second failed single “Ask The Lord” which was inexplicably remixed by the producer brought into finish off the album, Paul Staveley O’Duffy who would go on to produce Swing Out Sister and Curiosity Killed The Cat (who also seem to have borrowed some of Hipsway’s magic formula). He had replaced Gary Langan, the original producer, and added polish to the whole album. “Ask The Lord” had already been released and so he created a new version which, to his mind, took the best bits of “The Honeythief” to make what would become the follow-up.

Sadly, he took the veneer not the edge of the band’s sound and a really great song became a lost 45 for the second time, mired in too much over-production… and with it went the band’s progress. Both versions are on the remaster so if you’re of a mood, you can compare and contrast.

The real tragedy is that the final release from the album, “Long White Car”, never reached a wider audience either. It is a beautifully moody piece that has all the exemplary plaintive qualities of The Blue Nile, combined with the elegiac nature of a song like Aztec Camera’s “Killermont Street” or Deacon Blue’s “Raintown”. Contemporaries all, of course.

In the new sleeve notes, the band lament its demise too but it was always a simply wonderful recording.

And on such decisions are pop fortunes made and indeed lost. Momentum counts for everything and this is why so many bands burn out. For many it is a simple dearth of material worthy of following the initial break-through.

I don’t think this was the case for Hipsway. They should have been so much bigger – so shame on you Mr Record Executive. Listening to the album all over again has been hugely enjoyable and I am certain that, by the number of other acts I have cited that quite a few of them thought so too and mimicked and plundered many of its highlights.

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LET’S CHANGE THE WORLD WITH MUSIC

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In the midst of an era of geo-political turmoil, it seems somewhat ‘lightweight’ even thinking about writing about old pop records but it is our first anniversary and for those of you who have loyally stuck by this ongoing trawl down memory lane, I felt I could not ignore you.

Interestingly, as I read back on some of the pieces I had written, I realised how important changing society was in the writing of so many of the pop classics we had known, loved and, of course – as was the premise of this blog – come to ignore nowadays.

We fed the world; we ran the world; we freed Nelson Mandela; we asked Margaret to stand down; we stopped clause 28.

We even went down to Gorky Park and listened to the Wind Of Change.

So much of what was capable of making us shake a leg at the school disco also seemed to give us an awareness of the greater world and how we might make an impact on it. While Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” raged against the Falklands War and Midnight Oil begged for the return of the Aboriginal homelands in the subtly menacing “Beds Are Burning”, even the awful “99 Red Balloons” by Nena acted a symbol of a nuclear ending none of us wanted.

So what’s happened?

Brexit, Trump, Duterte – the world wants change and majorities all over the world has told us so and whether right or wrong, the people have spoken. but who was singing?

It makes me wanna holler and throw up both my hands…

Our beloved soundtracks used to help guide us in more than just a bit of bedroom dancing or gloomy introspection, it begged us to think about more than just “the moon in June”. Of course, I’m not saying that there is no important music anymore but ‘messages’ are often moved to the fringes and often left to be therefore overly aggressive, without a mainstream following.

In the words of the incomparable Edwyn Collins, “there’s too many protest singers and not enough protest songs”.

So can the spirit of Dylan and Lennon, and believing that “Love is all you need” – or if not that another answer was perhaps “blowing in the wind” – perhaps now be recaptured by our musical heroes as they may at last feel they have something serious again to rail against.

How poor Bruce Springsteen must despair as, despite his urgings and clear Democratic leanings, his contemporaries once more misunderstand “Born In The USA” and use it for a wholly different purpose of exclusion and isolation that is so not the mantra that the humane Boss would want anyone to espouse.

Can we change the world with music, as one of my favourite artists, Paddy McAloon, once exhorted us to do?

I would like to think so but as music has become such a fragmented and individual expression of taste, it seems less easy to rally millions behind causes in the way that music in events or recordings did in the past.

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So whilst i do hope today’s major musical figures will not simply decide to focus on bling, boybands and bleeps, I fear that their efforts will not have the same effect as their eighties predecessors due to the fragmentation of channels through which it was previously easier to coalesce.

But let us not be down-hearted because voting patterns would show that the younger generations seem to be more open to a world of tolerance and diversity with far less discrimination than their seniors. We should all feel proud of that – our generation may have dabbled with espadrilles and mullets but we knew enough to take some important messages to heart and pass them on and that should hopefully keep Kanye West out of the White House.

Perhaps Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” leaves a far greater legacy than many Nobel Peace Prize winners.

In the meantime, music still has the power to change my world. It can still make me feel like laughing or crying, like winning or losing. I can feel liberated or enclosed – I can sing out loud or hum in my head but the power is there to make me feel different.

A great record can always make you feel like starting fresh all over again.

Exhibit A.

Bono said that “music can change the world because it can change people” and that being the case, in a period when so much has left us feeling uncertain, please head to the stereo and I guarantee there will be a positive response lurking in there somewhere.

So fear not, while there are remasters aplenty (and November 11th was reissue heaven so watch this space) and old records to hauled out of the loft, there will always be the ability to change the world with music and if you keep reading, I’ll keep trying to find things to keep making things feel brighter again.

Tomorrow never knows. Thank you for reading.

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ONE NIGHT ONLY

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For those of us of a certain vintage, this year has seen several sad losses of the pop heroes from our yesteryears. Each one has brought back incredible visions from the old memory bank – “Starman”, “1999”, “September”, “Lyin’ Eyes”, “Me & Mrs Jones” to name but a few. All of these artistes can supply something from their catalogue to add to the poignancy of their passing and so add to the sombreness of the retrospection.

Not so, Pete Burns.

His work with Dead Or Alive was fast, furious and fun. No lilting ballads or mellow chill-out; everything they produced was at 300 miles per hour from start to finish. In only my last review, which looked at SAW and Mel & Kim, I had praised “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)” for its breakthrough nature in taking the Hi-NRG Disco sound into the pop mainstream. It still remains one of the very best “getting ready to go out” records ever made and set the tone for everything the band ever produced. High-speed Goth Pop.

In case you think I’ve taken leave of my senses, just listen, for instance,  to the a remix of the excellent “Tower Of Strength” by the Mission and imagine  an SAW beat behind it – it’s not such big leap. Wayne Hussey Of The Mission had of course, been a member of Dead Or Alive so the Gothic connection is perhaps a fair one.

Whilst the previous single was never really ever surpassed by the band because it was simply so defining, I always had a soft spot for several of their other singles “In Too Deep”, “Brand New Lover” and especially “Something In My House” which really managed to conjoin the brightest of pop production with the darkest of vocal performances.

There was always something just a little bit crazy about all of their records – overblown and almost operatic – and they seem to reflect the larger than life persona of their singer. Legend has it that prior to stardom, while working in both fashion and record shops, he would throw out those customers with whose tastes his own did not align. His later career as a celebrity reality TV certainly backed up his reputation as sharply acerbic.

That said, his musical legacy ensures that there will not be moments of quiet self-reflection but simply of unadulterated full-on fun and that is surely the way Pete Burns would have wanted it to be.

However, his untimely death did make me recall the story of the Mystery Girls a band that performed once only in 1977 as a support band to Sham 69 in Liverpool’s legendary new-wave club, Erics.

This little-known band was made up of Phil Hurst (who you won’t recall) with Pete Burns, Julian Cope (later of Teardrop Explodes) and Pete Wylie (later of the various incarnations of Wah!). A veritable mad hatters tea-party of 80s pop if ever there was one.

But, boy did they produce some great records.

Julian Cope, who though based in Liverpool was actually the most famous pop-star from Tamworth, broke through first of all with his band The Teardrop Explodes. They produced two of the best singles of the 8os in “Reward” and “Treason” as well as the legendary “Kilimanjaro” album and then after one more release imploded under immense strain and so established the legendary mystery that surrounds the band still.

Since then, Julian Cope has just become gradually more bonkers turning from Scott Walker doppelgänger to silver medallist in a Worzel Gummidge look-a-like competition. His music would also become infinitely more experimental but periodically, amongst all the LSD, he was still capable of conceiving another incredibly polished pop performance, witness “The Greatness And Perfection Of Love”, the thumping “World Shut Your Mouth”, “Beautiful Love” and even the wonderfully psychedelic “Sunspots” (sadly no video I could find).

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Perhaps the nearest to a return to pop stardom came with “Saint Julian” in 1987 which preceded another drop into a creative abyss but did leave us with some fantastically loony outpourings of which “Eve’s Volcano (Covered In Sin)” – and I don’t need to go into the not so hidden meanings of all that – was always my favourite.

So with Messrs Burns and Cope in a group, one would imagine that there would be ego enough in there but there was also Pete Wylie, another purveyor of some of the best and most dramatic singles of the 1980s.

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His band Wah! – later known as The Mighty Wah!, Wah! Heat and Shambeko Say Wah! amongst many others – were the first to gain critical acclaim with singles such as “Seven Minutes To Midnight” and were very much the darlings of the UK music press but couldn’t sell a record. Wylie, himself, was never backward in coming forward and made very bold pronouncements about his own talent.

He likewise was very much part of the Liverpool New Wave scene and had worked with Ian McCulloch of Echo & The Bunnymen and Ian Broudie of The Lighting Seeds in earlier groups before his one-off night in Erics as part of The Mystery Girls.

Wah! in all their guises hit on a fantastic formula of big orchestral numbers which would have Wylie’s heart-ringing and instantly recognisable vocals driving the emotion from the get-go. “Come Back” was the record of the year from John Peel in 1984 and “Sinful” was another big panoramic production two years later but it was “Story Of The Blues” that still sounds utterly rapturous – even with the Pt.2  Talking Blues version which has his rambling quasi-poetry over the backing track – a style he often enjoyed (even if his fans were less convinced).

Sadly, he was never able to bring any momentum into his career and so didn’t really capitalise on his undoubted talents except with a big hit every two years in the middle of the 80s and then not much. However, he would have one more big hit in partnership with The Farm and it is his unique counterpoint vocal that makes “All Together Now” the radio classic it deserves to be, because it manages to capture a mood of community that never descends into mawkishness. That said, there is an American version of the promo film that does its damnedest to drag it there – this one isn’t it.

One can imagine that the Mystery Girls were no great shakes and the one night together probably did little to set up the careers that were to come except that it is extraordinary to think of such talent all in one place. None of the three ended up making records like the others so it must have been quite an argument over the setlist.

No wonder they only performed for one night as I have doubt whether a big arena stage could have contained those enormous characters let alone the tiny but hugely influential Erics. Still, a top 20 from all three would make a heck of C-90.

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F***ING LOVELY, MATE

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Honestly, I don’t really believe in “guilty pleasures” as a musical theme. I like it and so I have nothing to feel guilty about. But it is fair to say that there are certain records that you really have a soft spot for which run so counter to your customary taste that they do stand out like the proverbial sore thumbs amidst the rest of your Stones, Sprouts and Smiths albums, for instance.

Step forward, Mel And Kim.

I am proud to say that I loved this album – it was in fact one of the last cassettes I ever bought and I played it relentlessly having purchased it especially for a very long and convoluted train journey to Poulton-Le-Fylde.

Now, in your heads, you are doubtless thinking… Stock Aitken & Waterman, horror upon horrors. That is probably true if you’re thinking about 1989 and “The Sound Of A Bright Young Britain”, seven number ones in a calendar year and a world full of Big Fun, Sonia and Brother Beyond.

However, long before Kylie and Jason and all the charity singles and even Rick Astley, there was the Appleby sisters and they really were a bit special. Girl Power over a decade before anybody else had even thought about it.

But it might sound surprising now but in the mid-80s SAW were a hot underground dance production unit who were much admired and imitated by other such as Jam and Lewis. As we shall see the feeling was mutual.

I’ve always quite liked Pete Waterman and particularly so, since I read his autobiography. Of course, he was dictatorial and hard-headed but he was also a man who earned his fortune through sheer hard work and hustling – he couldn’t read and write until he was in his 40s- and yet never lost his love for the music industry. His pedigree was also impressive as he had very much championed Northern Soul and then was the manager of the Specials just before they actually broke. One of his key remixers and engineers, Phil Harding, had worked with The Clash. The Hit Factory to be had some exceptional credentials.

Their skill was in taking more underground dance genres and allying them with a pop sensibility that took the sound into the mainstream. The Hi-NRG sound so popular in Gay Disco had provided hits but – and I include the still-awesome “Relax” – felt rooted in that world. They however, built all the overblown drama and speed into Dead Or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)” and created one of the defining singles of the decade. It goes at a million miles an hour and has every new synthesizer and sequencer technique known to man in 1984 injected into it. It was so different that it still holds the record for the longest ever climb to the number one slot which stands almost as a testimony to its growing assimilation into the mainstream.

So popular was it that they were called in to revive Bananarama’s then flagging career and whacked down the same rhythms for “Venus” at the band’s instigation because they wanted their record to sound like Dead Or Alive.

But this was a regressive step for a production unit that was always looking for the next movement in dance culture to bring to the fore and in 1985, they created a worldwide smash for Princess with “Say I’m Your Number One”. It was as good a demonstration of Soul/RnB as anything from Stateside or even the seemingly more cool local exponents, like Loose Ends.

SAW themselves would confound DJs across the land with their own release, the exceptional “Roadblock”, which twas sent out as an un-named white label and was then passed of as a previously buried treasure for Rare Groove fanatics. There were some red faces when it was revealed that the record was not a lost classic but fresh as a daisy. But at the time they could afford to play pranks with the Club DJs because their credibility with them was so high. A far cry from The Reynolds Girls.

Princess could have been a world-conqueror but thanks to the age-old story of rotten management, she lost her way quickly and the production team went looking for their next big thing. This came from their office mates at Supreme Records… Mel And Kim.

The Appleby sisters had had a tough upbringing in East London and with a somewhat checkered past, burst into their record company with bags of swagger, style and attitude. They were positive, hard-working and had a really good ear for what the clubs wanted to hear. It also helped that they hadn’t been hit with the ugly stick and created their own style that combined high-fashion with street-wear. They were very much the engineers of their own brand, which is probably why they came across as more credible than your ordinary pop mannequins.

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They were big fans of RnB and Soul and their first single was slated to be the excellent “System” which was building on the more laid-back style that SAW had been developing with Princess. It is still great song but Pete Waterman felt it wasn’t fresh enough and had become really interested in the then nascent Chicago House sound which had been taken up in the UK. Lots of electro sounds and thudding based with very simple repetitive lyrics. As a sound, it was selling but not really sticking.

Waterman felt that they should develop Mel & Kim into a more contemporary act with a more contemporary sound and so their whole songbook was speeded up and what was briefly known as London House was born with the blistering “Showing Out (Get Fresh At The Weekend)” which would prove to be only the first of their autobiographical anthems. The girls sounded like nothing else and looked fantastic. Bedroom dancers all over Europe went crazy for them.

They would follow it up with the number one hit, the stuttering “Respectable” equally autobiographical for the girls after Mel’s earlier glamour modeling career had emerged in the news and also for SAW who had been taking a battering in the industry for trying to do things differently from the majors. Robert Smith of The Cure, no less, marks it down as one of his favorite records of the decade, without the merest whiff of irony.

However, interestingly, the rest of the album is far more RnB based with notable highlights such as “From A Whisper To A Scream” and the epic “I’m The One Who Really Loves You”. It is littered with Jam and Lewis references – especially in the remake of the latter and borrows heavily from Janet Jackson’s wonderful “When I Think Of You” as a tribute to their transatlantic compadres.

Interestingly, when a Mel & Kim single was released to DJs they would put out several mixes which borrowed basslines and rhythms from other big dance floor hits of the time so that they could easily mix in and out of whatever song they wanted to play. It was another canny trick to get the all-important club support.

But the essence of the act really came with the title track “FLM” which of course we know as their anthemic cry of “Fun Love & Money” but actually was a play on the girls regular response to anyone asking how things were going – “F***ing Lovely, Mate”. They really were much loved and admired by their production team and this was a fitting distillation of everything Mel And Kim were about.

This appearance at the Montreux Rock & Pop Festival (a staple of Bank Holiday viewing at the time) was actually the last performance they ever gave publicly as Mel was said to be suffering from crippling back pains. In truth she was undergoing chemotherapy and although they bravely went public about her cancer later on, she sadly never recovered and died of pneumonia in 1990.

There was no second album just one final single that Mel went into the studios to record despite her illness and undoubted strain which was a fitting finale, “That’s The Way It Is (Looking After Number One)” which oozed the positivity and energy that their briefest of lightning bursts onto the pop charts had already defined. It somehow seems more poignant now that I know its full story, which is strange for a high-tempo pop record but that was the beauty of the personality they brought to the recordings.

Funnily enough on that trip to Poulton-le-Fylde we ended up going to Blackburn to a nightclub – we knew how to live in those days – and Mel And Kim were burning up the floor. The crowd could not get enough of them and neither could I.

Pete Waterman always becomes quite emotional discussing Mel And Kim because perhaps more than anything they put his organization on the map but were sufficiently unmanufactured to make the process of pop still feel magical. It’s easy to see wy they felt the hole their personalities left. Kim, of course, did come back on her own and made some other good singles but it was always so difficult to divorce her from the tragedy of the loss of her sister.

Mel And Kim provided SAW with their last big breakthrough from the dance underground, fusing pop with House and creating a defined sound that they would unfortunately imitate on countless more less imaginative and sterile acts. They stopped innovating and literally became a factory. It is sad really because I think that if you look at their early work it has a huge influence on pop but like Motown before it, there’s a time and a place and eventually, the acts move on and your team might not be able to. They started basing their development on themselves not on outside influences so the SAW sound may work for a time but they just stopped innovating.

Mel And Kim’s “FLM” is a genuinely breakthrough pop-dance album and I believe that – possibly only “Youthquake” from Dead Or Alive apart – this album was the only one able to give them a sustained legacy at 33rpm rather than the three minute format.

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WORLD DOMINATION… THEN WHAT?

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Perhaps no group in the 80s was as big as Duran Duran and they were never bigger than 1984’s World Tour. Their third album, the decidedly patchy “Seven And The Ragged Tiger” had seemed more overblown than its predecessor, the sublime “Rio” (still their finest hour), both in terms of production and presentation, as each release tried to be bigger and better than the previous one.

But the world (and I mean the whole world) simply didn’t care and so they followed the typical blueprint of a band at the height of their popularity:

Live Album of World Tour – Check (“Arena”)

Epic one-off single because you haven’t got time to do an album – Check (“Wild Boys”)

Soundtrack single for blockbuster film – Check  (“A View To A Kill”)

Solo Projects – Check (Arcadia & The Power Station)

And of course, they appeared at Live Aid in the Philadelphia leg.

In a genius piece of journalistic sub-editing, this was  brilliantly termed “Durandemonium”.

And then all of a sudden after somehow keeping the whole franchise alive from the album release in late 1983, when they were still really UK favourites just breaking MTV, it’s 1986 and the world has moved on.

Oh and two of your Taylors (Roger & more acrimoniously, Andy) have left.

So to a diminishing audience of followers emerged “Notorious” from the now very much more adult three-piece Duran Duran and whilst it is still not their best album and a little patchy, it has some of my favourite of their work in its grooves.

First things first, they jettisoned the clattering crash-boom-bang of “The Wild Boys” and “A View To A Kill” and created a far more sinuous and slinky sound. The first sign of this would come in the excellent title track, which would borrow the stutter of “The Reflex” almost as a conscious signal that they were back.

It really sets the sound for the majority of the album with bass-heavy riffs, brass stings and female backing that gives a much more soul feel to a band who had always had a good dance sensibility especially in their remixes.

And really it is the return of an old friend in Nile Rogers as producer that masterminds this change in sound to a more powerful but considered sound for the band. Actually, He had really saved the band when they were on the verge of a disaster during the period of promoting “Seven And The Ragged Tiger” as a singular lack of powerful chart performance (despite some astonishing video accompaniments) had seen him called in to remix “The Reflex” in order to return them to former chart glories which he duly he did by getting them to number one in May 1984 and then followed the afore-mentioned world domination.

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But the subsequent period had brought outside influences from the solo projects for John with The Power Station and Simon and Nick with Arcadia, so who knew what they would come back with. But actually you can sense the footprints of both in what was a brave new reinvention of the band.

As if the opener, wasn’t enough “American Science” maintains the groove (with an Andy Taylor guitar solo to boot, before he swanned off) and then comes one of the band’s finest ever moments in “Skin Trade”.

It has what I can only describe as a laser-etched swagger. It is sexy and languorous but never loses its sharpness and focus in the kind of way that a classic Chic track always maintained. In its extended form it is one of their finest pieces of work for the dance floor or indeed any floor.

Many people have always doubted that Duran Duran were ever on “Soul Train” but there’s the proof and it’s hardly surprising as I am certain that if Prince had given us this track it would be rightly lauded as the classic it should be. Not bad for a bunch of lads from Birmingham.

However, like many albums that create such a clear groove based atmosphere there is a tendency for them to peter out and lose variety. “Vertigo (Do The Demolition)” is an interesting track that has the kind of obscure lyricism that the band always liked to use to remind you of their genuine Bowie worship. “A Matter Of Feeling” sadly feels like a “Rio” out-take.

There are two interesting diversions however; “Winter Marches On” has some of the ethereal mystery that you would most often associate with the band’s eponymous first album with Nick Rhodes’s keyboards creating a most rewarding New Romantic throwback which has all the magic of “Tel Aviv” or “The Chauffeur” from “Rio”. Rhodes was always capable of the most inventive keyboard backdrops on their records which may have come from the fact that when he first started playing he only used the black keys on the keyboard.

Despite this being a soulful record and being decidedly funky in parts, the real surprise is when they almost lapse to modern-day Motown with the final single “Meet El Presidente”. There’s stomping drumbeats and “ooh-aah”  backing vocals in the chorus that really creates a sound that works but that we had never really heard from them before… or indeed since.

For a band who derived so much from David Bowie this was their attempt at a Bowie-like reinvention and in part it comes off. It’s their very own “Young Americans” – as the “Soul Train” appearance would confirm – and like that the album although undoubtedly imperfect, there is much that is genuinely innovative and gives us much to enjoy. Both move their creators onward in their careers.

Bowie would reinvent himself several times yet but for Duran Duran it only stemmed the inevitable which was a descent from the heights that they had earlier achieved – despite the fact that it is infinitely better than its direct studio predecessor. It did however, start the process of seeing them as a band that you could take seriously and not just clothes-horses and MTV pretty boys, which was a reputation that they had if did not entirely deserve. It would stand them in good stead when they really hit the bottom a couple of albums later only to reinvent again and return with the excellent and even more grown-up “Wedding Album”.

So whilst the first two albums will always be Duran Duran’s legacy, it is “Notorious” that ensures that they were taken seriously enough to be able to leave one.

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THE PAST IS THE PAST (IS THE PAST)

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I’m truly hoping that you all have had a chance to watch the excellent video-documentary “The Origin Of The Species” in which Keith Richards manages to be charming (much more so than in “Life”) and hugely wise in telling the story of his early life growing up in the rather grey world of post-war Britain. It uses fantastic editing and different video techniques to bring to life the various episodes of Keef’s early life long before he started Rolling with the Stones. It is engaging, warm and beautifully constructed.

This construction comes from breaking the conventions of normally biographical documentary story telling and has a pace and visual attractiveness that I suspect many are about to follow. I was not therefore, surprised to see that the director was Julien Temple, a long-time collaborator with the Stones and one of the pioneers of some of the most memorable moments of MTV history.

He had been the director of the Sex Pistols “The Great Rock N Roll Swindle” (and later “The Filth & The Fury”) often bringing social and political commentary into his work at a time when others were still chasing frothier pursuits. The once-controversial “Undercover Of The Night” may look tame now but succeeded in gaining the sort of front page notoriety from the more statesman like Stones they hadn’t seen in years because of its very strong political leanings and the use of guns – Mick’s mustache is still just as disturbing, however.

Of course, all this retrospection – together with the untimely passing of David Bowie – impelled me to re-investigate the 30th Anniversary version of Temple’s “Absolute Beginners” – the film that allegedly wrecked the British Film Industry and destroyed Goldcrest, which rather unfairly erases the respective roles of the unwieldy and bloated “Revolution” and “The Mission”.

Nevertheless, it was launched in 1986 after huge hype and sank like a stone amidst some very unpleasant critical vitriol. I know I didn’t think much of it at the time.

Time to revisit the film and its soundtrack.

Honestly, it’s still significantly flawed but much more interesting than I remember and in parts, hugely enjoyable. Perhaps because we end up looking at the past while it is, itself looking at the past, it seems to throw up a lot of discussion points that say so much about now, about then and about the time the film is set.

Firstly, one of the criticisms of the film is that it feels like a bunch of pop promos stitched together, which is using the director as a soft target. In actual fact, the disjointedness of the film seems to have come from the fact that the distributors became so nervous about getting the film out that they used four separate editors at once, all working on different sections of the film, having basically fired Temple and his production team.

But the film does look fabulous and there are some wonderful set-pieces in it that are a triumph of lighting and art direction. David Bowie in the “That’s Motivation” sequence is particularly striking, tap dancing in a Busby Berkeley number on top of the world and a giant typewriter. Indeed, the incredible long sweep opening shot of the sizzling and seedy quadrant of Soho, made such an impression on one of the film’s most famous Transatlantic fans (and her brother) that she used Temple to recreate it for one of the great (and certainly one of my favorite) pop promos of the period.

On reflection, the original from the film is still better.

At the heart of the film’s problems is a lack of chemistry between the two leads. Eddie O’Connell (better than I remembered) and Patsy Kensit (though still tigerishly smouldering, is far worse – “I’m Not Scared” with Eighth Wonder  was just around the corner, to restore her place in my poor benighted heart). In truth, she seems bizarrely better suited with the elderly James Fox as the effete Henley of Mayfair and that basically kills the entire premise of love’s labour found.

From this flaw though,  the film never truly recovers, so we’ll park that.

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Because there is much else to enjoy and Temple’s fascination for the era of Be-bop London and subsequent attention to detail should not be over-looked. Admittedly, there were significant liberties taken with Colin Macinnes’s original novel – and that of course alarmed many of its devotees – but this was a musical, made at a time when nobody made musicals – over 15 years since “Oliver” and roughly the same period before “Chicago” with only the anomaly of “Grease” in the way, and no stage-show libretto to work from.

What’s even more interesting is that this period of tremendous racial tension which resulted in the fierce Notting Hill riots in the summer of 1958 should provide inspiration but this film comes from a time only a matter of months from its own significant tension which had struck many of Britain’s multi-cultural inner cities. Temple certainly wanted to make his views well known on the tension and his feelings against the strong and unpleasant undercurrents that were dividing society still. Steven Berkoff is made that terrifying for a reason.

The 80s never ceases to surprise me, looking back, as how welded the music scene was in the desire to change outmoded societal patterns and this film attempts to take nearly all of them on – how do you think Paul Weller gets to be involved. Would we even think pop music had such power nowadays?

Oh and it’s a musical, don’t forget.

Perhaps the place to start is David Bowie. He looks utterly fantastic in this movie – every shape he pulls is designed for a record sleeve; the slick haircut, the electric blue suit. It is virtually impossible (as with every appearance he ever made) to take your eyes off him and yet (and I hate to say this) he simply is not that good an actor. Or maybe he is just too big a star to be anything other than the magnificent David Bowie.

After that sacrilege, let me redeem myself. Aside from the chronologically accurate version of “Volare” which is probably his first attempt at humour since “The Laughing Gnome”, Bowie delivers a title track from the very top drawer. “Absolute Beginners” comes from one of his least celebrated periods (“Blue Jean” had been directed by Temple) and yet may well be one of the most poignant and romantic songs he ever produced. There is a real sense of fragility and delicacy despite its big orchestral riff that keeps re-occurring throughout the soundtrack.

Of course, Bowie himself was very much a product of the late 50s, growing up in Bromley and Temple is very keen to give an authentic flavour to the whole proceedings. You’ll see other veterans of the period,  Sandie Shaw and Mandy Rice-Davies in charming little cameos (which is another of the enjoyable aspects of the film) as well as Lionel Blair appearing as Bobby Charms, the thinly veiled caricature of 60s pop impresario, Larry Parnes.

The lovingly recreated 2i’s coffee bar, street skiffle bands and even the rockabilly bomb site belter from Edward Tudorpole (better known to us as Tenpole Tudor) all give an added authenticity to the visual landscape that the film seeks to create.

Unlike Bowie, Ray Davies, whose own career had had an unexpected early 80s boost through his nostalgic video hit “Come Dancing” – also directed by Temple – seemed to put in a much more credible performance as Colin’s put-upon father. This whole section feels absolutely like a pop promo and in many way a separate entity from the rest of the film but it was directed produced and finished before the rest of the film was even begun as the backers wanted something ready to start to drum up interest with the trade and further investors. It is very much a latter-day Davies slice of life vaudeville number which seems to have become his default composing style.

And if you look closely – there’s Bruno Tonioli, as a Maltese lodger!

The soundtrack however, is the most interesting part of the package. There is a genuine attempt to capture the multi-cultural nature and timeline of the story with reggae, be-bop, ska, rockabilly, pop and of course, jazz. So whilst Smiley Culture toasts his way through Miles Davis’ jazz classic “So What” , the whole piece is welded together by British jazz veteran Gil Evans and this provides a considerable amount of drama to the proceedings especially in its “West Side Story” style gang fights.

However, it really is reflecting an interesting musical genre of the mid-80s which was Jazz-Pop (or Sophisti-pop, as I’ve hideously heard it referred to) and it was  perhaps best exemplified by the original vision of The Style Council and Paul Weller in his “Cappucino Kid” guise with his beatnik musings and hep-cat stylings.

Weller was of course a huge fan of Colin Macinnes’s novel and had written a different song called “Absolute Beginners” during his days in The Jam and his espousing of its virtues as a piece of key literature for the cognoscenti of the post-New Wave world had indeed led to the level of expectation that surrounded the film on its launch. Naturally, he was keen to add to the soundtrack and re-wrote one of the previous year’s “Our Favourite Shop” (a real jazz-pop cabaret piece) stand out tracks “With Everything To Lose” and re-christened it “Have You Ever Had It Blue”. Like Bowie, the film and its closeness to his heart, created a forlorn romanticism that had often been uncalled on in Weller’s more politically directed work of the time. Aside from a bass effect which rather dates the track badly, it still stands as one of his highlight tracks from this (or for me any) period of his career, even if it has, probably because of the film, been one of his least celebrated.

Of course, the film’s intention was to recreate the Jazz Clubs of 50s London but this was also the scene for 80s London. I remember spending late nights in Ronnie Scotts as the mecca of this type of musical movement and hearing several of the characters old and new  who would feature on the soundtrack. Working Week give us “Rodrigo Bay” and Jerry Dammers the frenzied “Riot City” while Charlie Parker veteran Slim Gaillard gets the joint jumping with the belting “Selling Out” lending it all a real sense of authenticity.

The song and performance that perhaps bridges the three decades best is Sade (who appears as the wonderfully named Athene Duncannon) performing a rare track “Killer Blow”, which is as rich and languid as any of her more familiar work and could well have stood out on any of her albums. Her performance is cat-like and screen-filling, which is impressive as she has no dialogue at all. It is another of the key scenes that seems to capture the very essence of the world, Temple wanted to recreate.

Of course, it is a fascinating period piece and particularly interesting when you then compare it to films from the late 50s such as “Sapphire” or “Flame In The Streets” which try to confront an issue that Britain of the time was not at all comfortable with. What you realize is that Temple was of the belief that things had not really improved that much in three decades and looking back, are our divisions much improved now?

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The be-bop cool of London in the 80s which had started at places like The Wag Club never really took off after this movie but did transform into the deliberately more cultish and more authentic Acid Jazz. Perhaps it’s problem lay in being simply too Soho-based. The Style Council would certainly decline significantly before splitting up three years later with its vision rather lost in the new world of raves and house.

So, thirty years later, as I finish the film and the soundtrack again, I find myself a defender for everything the film set out to do. It was brave to the point of reckless in combining a conventional boy meets girl story amongst a wealth of social commentary for both its 50s protagonists and its 80s audiences, but in a genre that really had been left unattempted for many years.

The music is still vibrant, the lighting is incredible and the film looks fantastic. Its attention to detail – with the exception of using a bridge that didn’t open for another ten years or so after the film’s setting – puts many period pieces to shame. “Absolute Beginners” was accused of bringing down Goldcrest and the entire British film industry – both of which are untrue – but if it did, it wasn’t through syphoning off the investment because it is all there up on the screen.

If you revisit the film and soundtrack, do as the director would urge and put your prejudices to one side. As we are led to believe this is not a perfect world (and there’s Patsy Kensit’s performance to remind us of that) but if the film is really a failure, then it is a glorious and brave one.

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