Monthly Archives: October 2016

ONE NIGHT ONLY

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

Not so, Pete Burns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, boy did they produce some great records.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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F***ING LOVELY, MATE

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

Step forward, Mel And Kim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WORLD DOMINATION… THEN WHAT?

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

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

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

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

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

Solo Projects – Check (Arcadia & The Power Station)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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