Monthly Archives: June 2016

WHEN ELECTRIC MEETS ECCENTRIC

associates-sulk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The+Associates+Smash+Hits+-+August+1982+343309

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seriously…

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

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

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

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

516527491_295x166

 

GREAT SCOTT

57241

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But lo!

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

Robert de Niro or Andy Garcia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

maxresdefault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unknown

CHARITY CASE

paul-young-1983-album-no-parlez

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

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

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

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

unzdf9f6286xuxz2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

414wfk7Z5cL

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

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

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

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

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

2015-01-17 No Parlez and Basil Brush