Category Archives: Reviews

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.

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

e341867q0c9

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.

reading

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.

s-l300

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.

ca8e6a37eaec7671643f20e4583668fd

F***ING LOVELY, MATE

mel_and_kim_-_flm

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.

13442383_606758962823392_7357185102279039974_n

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.

1987_melkim

 

WORLD DOMINATION… THEN WHAT?

51uqnxp1epl

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.

dd74bbef7b53f503a7ef1986e5fae096

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.

7125af11-b8e9-732c-2f2584694ec6ac6b

CHALICE AFORETHOUGHT

New-Gold-Dream-Deluxe600

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.

New-Gold-Dream-Exploded1200

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.

simple-minds-newgolddreamuslp

BEAUTIFULLY PUT TOGETHER

XTC_English_Settlement

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.

WEB_Image XTC English Settlement (2LP - BOXSET) -1998818914

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).

font

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.

VR838-2

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.

Uffington-White-Horse-sat

COULD’VE BEEN A CONTENDER

my-life-stroy-the-golden-mile

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.

11788

 

BURNT HUMBER

Central_heating_heatwave_album

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”.

SNF0730HHEAT-380_748901a

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…

RodTemp2

ZEITGEIST

0094632135322

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.

s-l225  IMG_1147 s-l225-1IMG_1155

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.

R-2072686-1369054206-2117.jpeg

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.

8f5bf9dc84feca43a65b17356f756739

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.

LE-BEAT-ROUTE-MEMBERSHIP