Tag Archives: 80s

STILL WALKING THE WALK

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

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

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

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

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

So why weren’t Hipsway more successful?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how can this have happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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THE PAST IS THE PAST (IS THE PAST)

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

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

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

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

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

Time to revisit the film and its soundtrack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh and it’s a musical, don’t forget.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CHARITY CASE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BRAVE CHOICES

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Somewhere along the way, music has rather lost its sense that it could change the world. There seems an incredible sense of fatigue from charity ensembles either in the recording studio or in large scale gatherings (like Live Aid or even Woodstock). Protest of one sort or another seems not to feature as much of a spur to hitmakers in a way that geo-political situations or philosophical extremism have in the past.

And yet now we could probably do with the world rallying together in an attempt to alleviate some of the madness into the chasm of which we seem daily now to stare.

Which is why I was so impressed with the action a couple of weeks ago of Bruce Springsteen to cancel his concert in North Carolina in protest against the State’s legislation and position on the rights of the LGBT communities. In his statement, he wrote,

“Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them. It is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards”.

It seems strange on first glance that it should be this embodiment of the American Everyman who takes this stance. The beer-drinking, sports-loving, hot-rod riding Bruce that should be the one taking the stance (the fact that Bryan Adams followed suit a few days later says all you need to know about the comparative stature of Bruce and Bryan Adams).

Yet we should never forget that Bruce has had a long history of speaking out on causes both at home and abroad. He was a key part of the Human Rights Tour of the late 80s, the Artists Against Apartheid, No Nukes and a series of local New Jersey initiatives as that state’s favorite son. Of course, he has been a great supporter of the Democratic cause and opened up Obama’s inauguration with “The Rising”.

Certainly, his particular support of this community can probably be traced back to his startling but enormously effective contribution of the title track for “Philadelphia” – the piercingly emotional “Streets Of Philadelphia”, a song with an astonishing power to move even without its accompanying movie narrative..

Living proof that blue collar does not necessarily hide a red neck. In this increasingly hostile world, we need the likes of Springsteen to see how backward some of us are looking.

As ever, Springsteen is a man who is capable of making big and brave decisions about his career which led me to go back and revisit my favorite of all his albums – the sometimes over-looked (including in his live set) – 1987’s “Tunnel Of Love” album.

The irony of this record is that one of the most important tracks on it was “Cautious Man” – the tale of Bill Horton, a man who finds love late in life and fears his commitment – because this was a magnificently brave recording.

In 1985, Springsteen was on top of the world; “Born In The USA” had sold by the truckload, his concerts had sold out everywhere and he had finally achieved the kind of audience attention his career had always threatened but now unleashed from the confines of just North America. “BROOOOCE” was the cry echoing around stadia all over the world as he and the E Street Band were the #1 attraction.

So with all of this success around, what does he do?

He withdraws into his home recording studio and makes an album largely on his own which ditches most of his band and many of the conventional themes with which he had been largely concerned.

For many who had been introduced to this now-major artist through his cavorting on stage with a teenage Courtney Cox in “Dancing In The Dark”, this must have come across as virtually unrecognizable. Instead “Tunnel Of Love” is an intensely individual record, with Bruce playing many of the instruments on his own.

Curiously, slightly earlier, though released later, one of my other favorite writers (and labelmate of Springsteen) Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout (a man who can do very little wrong in my eyes) had written “Cars And Girls” which was an uncharacteristically savage attack on Springsteen’s so-called lyrical obsessions – “Brucie dreams life’s a highway, too many roads go past my way”. It’s an unfair observation even before this album – “Born In The USA” had been a bitter commentary on the world for war veterans turned into some form of gung-ho anthem, the opposite of its intention – but made even more so when looked at with the contemporary release of “Tunnel Of Love”.

Springsteen had produced darker material before – particularly “Nebraska” – and would again with “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” and “Devils And Dust” but in these the settings are almost like little dark movies filled with unfulfilled characters not the singer himself. This album is profoundly personal and so feels as if it comes from a very different place. Try “Walk Like A Man” which is a very poignant review of his relationship with his father.

Ironically, “Cars And Girls”, despite its original intention, is regularly featured on all manner of “Driving” or “Highway” compilations – again the antithesis of that particular author’s vision.

I remember at the time virtually every review of this album talked about how it was Springsteen coming to terms with his new-found married status – his wedding to Julianne Philips had taken place at the height of his success in 1985. They picked up on the edginess of commitment for a man married comparatively late at 37 (like I would know anything about that) but felt the closing track “Valentines Day” intimated at the artist’s certainty that all would work out in the end.

It all seemed very neat… but inaccurate.

Yet, their new marriage was dropping to pieces almost immediately and the fear that comes across in so many of the tracks, especially “Cautious Man”, as well as the sheer difficulty of the relationships, “One Step Up” for example, weigh heavily on him.

Every character he paints, like the afore-mentioned Bill Horton or Bobby in “Spare Parts” – a song that seems definitely to have been influenced by Steve Earle then doing good box office with “Copperhead Road” – seems to be permanently running scared. Of course this a theme that we’ve seen before in songs such as “Hungry Heart” but it has always felt as if it was one of his regular short stories or mini-screenplays.

But when you are faced with, for me still the highlight of the album, the excellent but strenuously sinister title track, “Tunnel Of Love”  our hero seems riddled with foreboding and uncertainty about the state of his relationships. The unusual instrumentation (he was largely playing everything himself, remember) seems to emphasize the awkwardness of the whole situation.

And then there are the painful themes of disappointment and recrimination that feel as if they have come from Springsteen on the most uncertain of all his journeys – this is his own crisis.

The misunderstanding that exists in his relationship is brought front and centre also on more than one occasion – “Two Faces” is the more obvious case but it is in the claustrophobia of “Brilliant Disguise” that is Springsteen at his finest. Here the instrumentation builds but feels permanently constricted and the intensity of the vocal grows and grows.

We are witnessing a man truly conflicted. And, incidentally as promo films go I think this one is nigh on perfect.

And this is not all that keeps him awake at night.

The acapella opening track, “Ain’t Got You”, now seems fairly innocuous and is performed more jokily in reply to the question of what it feels to be The Boss. However, for America’s hero of the working man to be talking about the problems of having “a house full of Rembrandt and priceless art” was a brave and potentially alienating move. His long-term collaborator Miami Steve Van Zandt certainly thought so and told him unequivocally.

Yet this was an honest attempt to voice the uncertainty he now felt as probably the most famous man on the planet at the time. His success seemed to sit uneasily with him and so brought the need to withdraw from his band, from his marriage and seeming  pre-ordained path to success> he seems genuinely to have been prepared to gamble on his audience too.

Mercifully, most of them and certainly the longer-term ones knew better.

What is it to be a boss?

If you want it to be your nickname you need to live up to it.

It’s not a popularity contest that’s for sure. There are inevitably difficult decisions to be made – sometimes at odds with conventional or popular opinion. You have to know yourself and your boundaries. You need to be prepared to take chances. It can be lonely and it can be hard. And often you simply have to do it yourself, to do it right.

This is a recording that is entirely individual, unexpected and personally courageous and has always been my favourite of his catalogue. I imagine it features less in his sets nowadays simply because unlike so many other classics, much of the work still has the power to rip the Band Aid off a wound.

No work more than “Tunnel Of Love” shows why The Boss is the Boss and why even now when music has perhaps lost its power to stun inertia into action, he still remains able to do so.

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ALEXANDER NEVERMIND

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It seems extraordinary that barely three months since we were mourning the passing of David Bowie, the other great pop chameleon, Prince, should so unexpectedly depart. The media is already full of retrospectives and discussions about one of the undoubted masters of pop. I use pop in its broadest term as, like Bowie, here was a man who could fuse genres in a key change – part-rock, part-soul, part-funk, part-disco and always pop.

For what it’s worth, my favorite album is the unusual “Around The World In A Day” which in true Prince style followed quickly after the all-consuming global success of “Purple Rain” and took a complete sidestep from what had only months before turned him into a global superstar. It confused some audiences but I absolutely loved its lush orchestrations, its stunning cover and all-round psychedelic vibe – especially ints three hippy trip singles – “Paisley Park”, “Raspberry Beret” and my favorite of all his songs “Pop Life”.

Interestingly, if you’re looking for clips of Prince to show your tribute to him you’ll find them few and far between as disputes with his publishers and his record companies have necessitated much of his excellent and inventive broadcast material being pulled down.

This actually presented me with the ideal opportunity to talk about Prince’s considerable prowess not as a performer, which all of us who have seen him can gladly attest, but as a songwriter.

Prince was incredibly prolific and this ability to turn out material had the power of unsettling his audience but all artists should be provocative and the simple movement from the dance floor vibe of “1999” to the rock/pop of “Purple Rain” and then to the psychedelia of “Around The World In A Day” and the sparseness of “Parade” all occurred in a four year period. During this time, he also toured the world and made two movies. He never settled on a definable style and this genre-hopping allowed him to experiment constantly.

Everyone, will therefore have a period they prefer to somebody else’s but at an initial rate of nearly an album a year, there was little doubt that something you would enjoy from his canon would come along at some stage.

However, this paucity of existing promo material to put in front of you led me to consider the fantastic material he was able to pass on to other artists. A considerable amount of course, went to his Paisley Park coterie and here he was able to extend his band’s more recognizable sounds but always with an added twist.  Whilst some preferred Wendy & Lisa or Apollonia 6, I personally always loved the dance floor beat of the work he did with his sultry percussionist, Sheila E – highlights being the duet of “Erotic City” (a B-side to “Lets Go Crazy”) is a real unplayed classic (except in Newcastle nightclub “Julies”) that hinted at what would come in the excellent “LoveSexy” era and especially, “A Love Bizarre”.

Over the years, Prince took on a variety of pseudonyms to present material to other people – so while we all know that famously he wished to change his name from Prince during his Warner Bros dispute, he also presented himself as Christopher Tracy, Jamie Starr and Camille amongst others.

In the same way, that he took on different soubriquets, he was also able to switch genres almost effortlessly either in his writing style or in creating songs that would simply allow variation and interpretation.

He had written two UK number one singles, the haunting “Nothing Compares 2 U” for Sinead O’Connor and the comparatively under-rated “I Feel For You” by Chaka Khan, several years before he finally achieved his only UK number one under his own steam, the majestic “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World”. All three of these will doubtless attract a lot of tributes in the coming days and weeks.

I also witnessed an absolutely inspiring cover version of “Purple Rain” by The Waterboys which really did play perfectly to their concept of the ‘Big Music’. But my favorite remains the track he wrote as Christopher, originally for Apollonia, but to enormous success for the Bangles – “Manic Monday”.

Legend has it that Prince was in the UK appearing (rather bemused) at the 1985 Brit Awards in London where he won the first of his six awards – famously, he strode with a huge entourage of bodyguards swiping all before them to deliver a four word speech – and caught up with the other overseas visitors to the show, The Bangles while they were traveling back on Concorde and slipped them a demo cassette of two songs of which this is one. At the time, they had not really broken through, this was to be their big chance and so they reinvented the song with some baroque touches and the rest is history.

Prince simply loved what he did – he loved music. He loved performing and he loved writing – that will feature in all of his tributes. But he was also enormously generous with his talents and affected the careers and breakthroughs of so many other artists as well.

Sadly, we lose another of “The Beautiful Ones”.

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IMPORT EXPORT

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One of the joys of ‘Top Of The Pops’ was that it simply didn’t discriminate. Punk, Ska, Disco, Novelty,  Metal and even FA Cup winners would appear. The show simply reflected the unusually varied taste of the UK record-buying public. Around the turn of the 80s was undoubtedly one of the most mixed with the 2-Tone explosion, Brit-Funk, the New Romantics, Disco medleys and even Captain Sensible from The Damned with a cover of “Happy Talk” from 50s musical “South Pacific”.

Quite extraordinary.

I have been enjoying viewing some of these episodes recently on BBC iPlayer and watching Motorhead follow Spandau Ballet who in turn have Siouxsie & The Banshees, Kim Wilde and Stars on 45 in quick succession. Sleepless nights in Tokyo don’t have to be spent gazing wistfully from a whisky bar like Bill Murray in “Lost In Translation”.

However, there is a musical movement that is never covered or mentioned but seems to constantly have a place in virtually every episode and in truth has much to answer for. The Great British public of the time seemed to have an obsession with a rock ‘n’ roll revival.

Sounds cool doesn’t it?

Except it gave us “Do the Hucklebuck” by Coast To Coast, “Rama Lama Ding Dong” by Rocky Sharpe & The Replays and several singles by Darts – all decent enough disposable pop but really just pre-teen pop primer material. It also left us with over half a decade of Shakin’ Stevens and no matter how I try, I can never find anyone willing to own up for taking part of the responsibility for this musical injustice.

However, there was a strand of this revival that was a lot more genuine and rootsier. Matchbox possessed genuine rockabilly credentials, despite coming from deepest Middlesex, having toured with Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry. They created an authentic sound and certainly looked like a bunch of old rockers even then but then rather blotted their copybook with an awful version of “Over The Rainbow” that was so obviously targeted at the Christmas number one slot that no subsequently accurate Buddy Holly tribute could compensate.

I blame Shaky for their demise as well – thinking it was what rockers needed to do to succeed.

However, much of the rockabilly interest had come out of the post-punk world. The Clash after all, had adapted much of the look and never failed to show their appreciation of the style – “Brand New Cadillac” was a powerful cover of original British rocker Vince Taylor’s belting original. There were, to my recollection more Teds than Punks in circulation at the turn of the decade.

Thus was born, a genuine British cool rockabilly band, The Polecats, who had all the attitude of punk but ears of 50s Memphis – it’s best demonstrated in two fantastic covers of Bowie’s “John I’m Only Dancing” and T-Rex’s “Jeepster” which remain faithful yet inventive at the same time (Bowie himself approved). Interestingly, their then teenage guitarist, Boz Boorer would go on to join Morrissey’s band and act as Musical Director, giving a rockabilly sensibility to several of Moz’s albums – especially “Your Arsenal”.

But the most interesting and successful story has to be that of The Stray Cats.

First of all, they were American and therefore, the real deal. They oozed authenticity with their tattoos, quiffs and Gretsch guitars but allied it to a very punk attitude. They even sounded right – Brian Setzer (couldn’t be more New York) but add Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom and you knew you were going to get exactly what it said on the tin.

They had formed in New York and were well known on the club circuit for their high-octane brand of rock ‘n’ roll that managed to sound surprisingly current.

And this is where it gets interesting; because in order to make their breakthrough they headed not to Memphis or Nashville but instead across the Atlantic to London where they came to the attention of Dave Edmunds, a passionate aficionado of rock ‘n’ roll and then a big name, himself. He had come from that other musical strain that had influenced this revival – pub-rock –  as a solo artist and with his collective, Rockpile. He had long history of involvement with authentic rock n roll having recorded “I Hear You Knocking” and then turned into a sometime producer.

The result was explosive.

The lead single “Runaway Boys” might be hugely familiar but it has all the sass of a Clash single. You can hear the rebellion pressed into the vinyl in a far more convincing way than some of their seemingly more credible contemporaries. There’s an electrifying guitar solo and all backed by the stripped down rhythm section. It was no pastiche but a thunderous piece of genuine rockabilly.

The theme would be picked up in the next single, the equally dynamic “Rock This Town” another tale of youthful revolt though more hedonistic than its threatening predecessor.

However, rockabilly has traditionally been very much a 45s driven genre, classic albums are few and far between and, in truth, the first Stray Cats album suffers a little from that. Whilst “Jeannie, Jeannie, Jeannie” is a faithful Eddie Cochrane tribute, “Fishnet Stockings” and “My One Desire” simply have less bite than the more famous numbers – still at least it’s not Shaky.

But the album does have several more interesting songs to analyze. The first can only be termed Republican Punk which is “Storm The Embassy” a very new wave-like piece of political polemic urging the breaking of the then current siege of the US embassy in Teheran. Listening now it seems eerily reminiscent of some present-day exhortations emanating from the American political stage. In 1981, this seemed in keeping with the rebel nature of the band but raised very few eyebrows – I suspect this now would have caused their record label to take on more than just a little added security.

During this period, having seen the release of “Quadrophenia”, we also witnessed the Mod revival, as the seaside towns of Britain were once more invaded by scooter-riding hordes of Secret Affair fans. Doubtless watching from their new digs in England, Setzer and the band wrote what is almost certainly the only anthem for the Mods’ sworn enemies, the Rockers, with “Rumble In Brighton” – a surefire leather-clad call to arms for the less publicized opponents in the Bank Holiday skirmishes.

A peculiarly English obsession documented by a very American band – curiouser and curiouser.

Despite some of the rockabilly tracks not really cutting through, there are some interesting stylistic tryouts such as “Ubangi Stomp” an old 50s classic which is laden with a jittering nuttiness that carries something of a ska lilt. “Wild Saxophone” on the other hand has all the big band, jump-blues energy that would mark the rebirth of Setzer’s career with the Brian Setzer Orchestra in the mid-90s – it’s pure Louis Prima.

Indeed, Setzer would often return to his Stray Cats material and repurpose it for his big band sound to great effect – “Rock This Town” being a particular beneficiary. In his career, he would often switch between swing band leader and rockabilly rebel and I am still none the wiser as to which he enjoyed the most. They are related but very very different as one depends on a full lavish sound and the other is pared back to the basics.

Of course, he has also tried this trick with the third of the album’s big singles the eponymous “Stray Cat Strut” but really it loses the sleazy subtlety of the original. This is a fantastic sounding 45 that lopes along with an undisguised swagger peppered with razor-sharp guitar licks – he would prove to be a real guitar great as the years rolled by, much admired by his contemporaries as a pure and intuitive player.

It may well be a pop song but this is what good pop should be memorable, different and fun.

The problem as I said earlier is that great rock and roll in all its early forms be it doo wop, boogie-woogie, jump blues or rockabilly was always at its best in short slugs that were no more than two and a half minutes long. To be this authentic over a full album is a rare feat from the Stray Cats and worth reinvestigating accordingly – certainly none of the other quick burst luminaries of the movement managed it.

Sadly, their appeal didn’t last to a second album which followed quickly but bombed even more quickly. The material likewise, (perhaps from record company pressure) was not as robust and lacked the energy of the original debut.

But all was not lost, because their label put together the best of the two albums and released a new record as “Built For Speed” in America and nearly two years after success in the UK, this most American of bands with the most of American of sounds was brought full circle and imported as a big hit back to the States on the back of the MTV invasion.

Of course, it’s not Carl Perkins or Jerry Lee Lewis but the first Stray Cats album is faithful to the sound and intention of all the originals and should be enjoyed for that. They burned bright and briefly but then that’s what  the great early stars of rock and roll were supposed to do.

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OH YOU PRETTY THINGS!

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The entire conclave of cinema fans seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief when Leonardo Di Caprio finally won an Oscar for Best Actor this year in “The Revenant”; not my favourite of his nominated roles but for sheer persistence and consistency, nobody could seriously begrudge his success.

Like another fine actor, Johnny Depp, he seems to suffer from not being taken entirely seriously as an actor and my theory is simply that he is just too good-looking.  Age him as J.Edgar Hoover, make him an unlikeable racist bigot in “Django Unchained” or plain demented in “Shutter Island”, but the eyes still twinkle and the cheekbones still jut. All his acting range and character effort goes out the window.

You can even stick him in an Iron Mask…

So in the pop world – and on a smaller scale admittedly – we have the Leonardo Di Caprio of pop, Nick Heyward both as a solo artist but particularly in the company of his original band, Haircut 100.

Now we just think of these smiling teenpop sensations causing pandemonium as they appeared on the covers of every magazine (reinforcing just how important that medium still was then) as well as numerous TV shows. Had they perhaps been put together from an American project  or even from the estates of West London, we might give them far more credibility than a bunch of photogenic school leavers from Beckenham, dressed as trawlermen.

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Yet “Pelican West” manages to combine the funk sensibilities of Chic with the spiky stabs of The Clash  to create a sound that is anything but Kentish.

Heyward himself, was also a really interesting lyricist fusing an almost T-Rex surrealism with McCartney like pop novelty. Exhibit A: “Lemon Fire Brigade”. These were not however some kind of hallucinatory visions but a rather a much more idyllic and poetic stream of consciousness.

“Favourite Shirts” is honestly all about wearing your favourite shirt and how good it feels when you want to go a-courting.

Meanwhile, this is a hard latin-style  production that owes much to “Le Beat Route” jazz-funk sound which so dominated Spandau Ballet’s part-brilliant part-nonsense second album “Diamond” (“Chant No 1” /  “Paint Me Down”)from the same year. The pop sensibility can’t be questioned but there is a much harder funk edge to tracks like “Kingsize (My Little Steam Whistle)” than you might immediately recall.

Perhaps the biggest influence – and this should get the purists suitably riled – were Orange Juice darlings of Postcard records and led by the now (rightly) beatified Edwin Collins, who had produced a slew of skittering indie-pop/funk records complete with equally unusual lyrical themes and art school vocabulary usage – “Surprise Me Again” is a perfect example. How they must have looked on at the Haircuts’ success and waited for the knock on the door from an adoring public; that would come a year later but prove to be equally (and undeservedly) ephemeral.

The key difference is that Orange Juice are still cited as an influence worth citing – Nick Heyward’s cheekbones and success seemed to have ensured that Haircut 100 are not.

Heyward’s later work – especially the excellent “From Monday To Sunday” “Tangled” and “The Apple Bed” (released on Creation in the mid-90s) – was all geared to him being taken more seriously as a songwriter and performer. Of course, he never lapsed to the melancholy but still produced excellent if over-looked pop.

And yet “Pelican West” is eccentric and mainstream all at once and were it a bunch of New Yorkers, this would undoubtedly sit happily on the then flourishing Ze Records for all its naive and esoteric qualities allied with genuine Latin rhythms. Moments such as the fabulous “Love’s Got Me In Triangles” are pure Chic groove (available in an extended version for the first time) whereas “Marine Boy” sounds like an English summer afternoon, laced with dream-like whimsy. The rapping may sound a little awkward but it’s never self-conscious and just adds to the idiosyncratic nature of this very off-beat record.

Add to this three of the finest debut pop singles you could find in “Favourite Shirts”, “Love Plus One” and “Fantastic Day” and it’s small wonder that the world was at Haircut 100’s feet. But the tension soon began to show “Nobody’s Fool” the fourth single – added to the remaster – already shows a world -weariness the like of which the entirety of “Pelican West” could not produce a single milligram – so relentlessly bright is it.

The strain showed in the relationship within the band and Nick had a nervous breakdown as the pressure of such sudden fame hit a twenty year old with a legendary case of awkward shyness, so that amidst suspicions and counter-suspicions and at the very height of their powers he left the band and began an excellent but patchily successful solo career. The rest of the band amidst a series of recriminations gamely battled on but without sales and went their separate ways.

It seemed they were never happier than when they were a gang of young lads in cable knit sweaters. I suspect we, as their listeners weren’t either.

This is a fine album filled with fine musicianship – Blair Cunningham who would join the Pretenders and Paul McCartney later is a swinging drummer and Phil Smith brings a string of memorable saxophone melodies (most famously on a soprano sax for “Love Plus One”), whilst Les Nemes has inherited some really funky basslines. This is topped off by Graham Jones’s wonderfully choppy guitar work that spits rhythm all over the vinyl.

And then there’s the cheekbones and croon of Nick Heyward himself – sometimes he dices with being  too cute but manages to stay just the right side (“Snow Girl”) but other times has the classic eccentric New Wave sharpness of an Andy Partridge (“Calling Captain Autumn”). Were he not the perfect face for Look-In and Flexipop maybe the split in the band may never have happened. Were he not so obviously the driving force of the look of the band and its visual design maybe there would not have become such an unbridgeable schism.

Likewise, the legacy of this utterly delightful upbeat album would be taken more seriously. They may have been the subject of a cartoon but they had anything but a two dimensional sound. It’s unusually surreal and unexpectedly groovy and now it has been so lovingly remastered might just be the surprise hit of your summer all over again.

Bring on the trumpet brigade!

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CHANGE FOR THE BETTER

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Writing about music can never be as powerful as making it and I readily admit that the words I throw down here – basically for my own amusement – can change very little except, hopefully, your Spotify lists and your Amazon purchases. But one of the great truths of music is its ability to broaden your world view, bring attention to subsumed issues and create an emotional bond with its listeners for causes in a way that a cogently argued pamphlet, article or speech often cannot.

One of the truths of my teenage years is that there seemed a wealth of issues about which our popstars could become aerated. We wanted to “Free Nelson Mandela”; we shouted “Stand Down Margaret”; there was “Shipbuilding”, an anti-Falklands War piece, anything by Billy Bragg and even “Two Tribes” was a full-blooded if bombastic assault for the ears about the backdrop of the Cold War. Even those former Street Fighting Men, the Rolling Stones drew attention to the plight of Pinochet’s  ‘Missing’ in “Undercover Of The Night”.

However, whilst some of these causes I took up with more enthusiasm than others, the album that perhaps more than any other had the ability to kick-start a change  in the prevailing mood around an issue with the greatest lasting consequences is “Age Of Consent” by Bronski Beat.

Now I accept that this is, to some of you, an unusual choice but I doubt any piece of music did so much to make Gay Rights such an acceptable subject amongst its target audience. Perhaps its age creeping up, but I do not look back on some of my views and opinions from around this time with any pride – indeed, I do not mind saying that some the cheap throwaway remarks of my younger days still overcome with me guilt and a degree of shame.

And rightly they should still haunt me.

I was (and hopefully still am) a relatively educated and intelligent human being who could develop strong well-thought out opinions on a variety of subjects and yet some of my utterances, whilst not deliberately barbaric, would certainly come across as cheap, ill-conceived and doubtless, harmful to any listening gay ears.

Some of our views become entrenched with time and some become more tolerant and I would certainly like to think that mine changed around the time of my last year at school as music opened my eyes and ears to worlds that previously had not seemed important. But this was the value of music then because if it was being featured on Top Of The Pops or The Tube or Whistle Test then it was going to be important to me.

And with “Age Of Consent” I doubt you could have created a more direct protest supporting Gay Rights than this. For goodness sake, the first line of the first verse of the first song “Why?” is “contempt in your eyes as I turn to kiss his lips” – there’s little covering up the subject matter of this piece and would be no place to be if you were uncomfortable with gay culture.

And yet this is one of the most exciting records of the time and has an extended version (available on the remastered new version) that may be up there with the very best remixes of the whole decade. It has a high energy pace but uses its synthesisers to create a tough industrial sound that sounds like a near cousin of Depeche Mode. It is fiery, thunderous and never lets up once.

Interestingly, the band recorded full length versions of their songs and then edited them down rather than mixed them up, as was normally the case which may account for such exciting remixed versions although apparently some of their excesses inevitably need curbing as they played with their new sequencers and synthesisers – the rather needless central percussion breakdown with sequenced vocals doesn’t necessarily stand the test of time as well as the rest of the record.

Really it is this incredibly different and rugged synthesiser sound that is the piece in the jigsaw of making this such an arresting record and producer Mike Thorne had been deliberately chosen after his work with Soft Cell on the darker “The Art Of Falling Apart” and enjoyed the more serious undercurrents of the band’s work that could be incorporated into his developing sound book.

However, the real highlight of the recording is of course Jimmy Somerville’s extraordinary voice. A falsetto like no other you had ever heard and incidentally entirely untrained.

If you were going to central casting for an angry-looking, ginger, political Scotsman you would have been hard-pressed to come up with a more stereotypical looking character than Somerville and yet, as all of this piece is about the breakdown of prejudice and preconception, I think we should dwell simply on a style of vocal delivery that was able to move from the high intensity of “Why?” to the clear jazz inflections of “Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Heatwave” and of course, the subtle sadness of the classic “Smalltown Boy”.

And if you really want to hear just how distinctive and original a voice it is then check out this  great clip from the streets of Berlin.

Despite the relentless dance drive and pop sensibilities of the album, the band’s politics were 100% genuine and Somerville had developed an activist background during his sojourn in London. “No More War” and “Junk” were equally angry diatribes against the state of the nation and “Screaming” is a terrifying representation of abuse. This was a band that pulled no punches.

Perhaps the undiscovered highlight of the album is the low-key and slightly sinister “Love And Money” which combines all their jazz and electro influences but underpins it with a stunning piece of sax work and back rhythm that Sade would be proud of. It deserves not to be over-looked not eat because of its prophetic nature and I’m sure looking back all of Bronski Beat will be pleased with that.

Finally, we should talk about the “I Feel Love” Medley which also included another Donna Summer classic “Love To Love You Baby” and the chorus refrain from John Leyton’s number one single “Johnny Remember Me”. On the original album, it is a version performed just by the band but in the remaster you get the hit single which was turned famously into a disco duet with Marc Almond.

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So while Jimmy Somerville became disillusioned with Bronski Beat and subsequently left to form the Communards straight after this single, it set an interesting blueprint because whilst he was always a champion for Disco (and still remains so), he seems to have preferred setting his voice against a deeper counter – “Don’t Leave Me This Way” obviously comes to mind with Sarah-Jane Morris but also on “Comment Te Dire Adieu” with Jules Miles-Kingston and, lest we forget, his backing on “Suspicious Minds” with the Fine Young Cannibals.

I think it is a fascinating use of a haunting and unique voice. It is in some way other-worldly and slightly ghostly.

This makes the cover of the death disc  “Johnny Remember Me” all the more the appropriate. However,as an aside,  this was produced originally  by Joe Meek, the idiosyncratic record producer of the early 60s (“Telstar”); so obviously, they knew their history as he had led a tortured life in the closet before his untimely suicide but I think he would have appreciated the recording for its wonderful link of pop and experimentation of which he was one of the great pioneers.

At the time of “Age Of Consent”, more pop music was sold in the UK than any time since the 60s and its coverage in the media would never be so high. Accordingly, the issues that music was able to make a positive contribution to – be it Live Aid or Apartheid or the Nuclear Threat – were numerous and heartfelt. We really could change the world with music, as Paddy McAloon would urge us to do in later times.

But this is an album that did start a fundamental change in how we considered our prejudice to gay issues (certainly it made me question mine, I’m delighted to say) and opened up a dialogue that whilst still not complete has certainly moved on.

As rugby clubs the length and breadth of the country began happily dancing to their version of “I Feel Love”, I feel certain that even to this day the band think this one of their most important achievements. Bravo Bronskis!

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VOYAGE TO THE TOP OF THE WORLD

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There’s often talk of band rivalries – Blur versus Oasis being the most notable and probably the only one that seemed quite bitter (at least from the Mancunian camp) but more often than not, rockstars seem to enjoy the company of other rockstars. The Beatles versus the Stones was far more about their fans than the bands themselves. The Stones second hit was a Beatles cover given to them by the band themselves and over the 60s they periodically pop up in each other’s chronologies.

Undoubtedly, though one band’s success can spur on another; Brian Wilson became so obsessed with “Rubber Soul” that he felt the need to emulate it and so became the intricate birth of “Pet Sounds”.

However, in the 80s there were all sorts of supposed rivalries but perhaps the most interesting is the one between U2 and Simple Minds and, lest we forget (indeed that’s the purpose of your writer’s pursuit) the Scottish half of this contest were for a time the victors – in truth they became one of the very biggest bands on Earth before their Dublin cousins.

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The bands were, it should be said, on seemingly friendly terms, with Bono guesting at Simple Minds gigs and compliments paid between the two parties – there is a clip of both Bono and Jim interviewed on Belgian TV where they announce they are marrying each other –  but there is no doubt that the two bands were paying more than a little attention to one another.

It’s time to show my appreciation for Simple Minds at their zenith.

The interesting thing is that for many fans of the band, they assert that their apotheosis comes at very different points in their career so this may be a longer discourse than usual as I make my case for the defence, and so will look at some of their earlier work to back up my positive convictions about “Once Upon A Time”; this sometimes unfairly derided album from 1985 has just been released in a wonderful Super Deluxe Edition Boxset – and we all know how I cannot say no to one of those – and this event has certainly made me take this album on with renewed vigour.

First things first, it is not my favourite Simple Minds album as that will always be “New Gold Dream” – from 1982, two albums earlier – that will always be in my Top 10 albums ever. It is dream-like, layered and mysterious. It has moments of immense obscurity shrouded  as juxtaposition to memorable hooks and rhythms and so has rightly justified its place in the hearts of its fans, who will support it with all their heart 35 years later.

When it does come out with its own Super Deluxe Edition – and Lord knows it deserves it – firstly, you’ll know what I want for Christmas, if I can save myself from the click button on Amazon, and secondly, I promise to look in more detail at it.

However, it is an important part of our journey because the Minds were not an overnight success and are sometimes, with this album, lumped in as part of the New Romantic movement. Admittedly, Jim Kerr had taken to eyeliner and the groove of “Promised You A Miracle” had a similar dance floor appeal but there was still the experimentation and depth on tracks such as “Big Sleep” and “The King Is White And In The Crowd” that would make their beats much loved on the Balearic circuit.

Listen to a track like the ethereal instrumental “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and you’ll understand the art-school background that the band come from. They are part of what was briefly termed by the music press “Futurism” – a more serious cousin of New Romantics and a groovier younger brother of new wave – but probably rightly including at the more accessible end, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Japan.  However, even albums like the debut from Duran Duran have elements of crossover here.

So “New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84” is the greatest album of the Futurist movement.

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But for some die-hard Minds’ fans, this was the moment they sold out. Commercial success undid the underground nature of all their early work – classic singles like “I Travel” “The American” or “Love Song” even the often indigestible but rightly termed “Real To Real Cacophony” were seen as highlights of a band that were working hard to find new ways of making music in the ever-changing post-punk world with sequencers and synthesisers.

Seriously, these fans will only discuss early-Simple Minds whilst for others the highpoint is “New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84”. Undoubtedly, every part of it is still brilliant but it is only the start of our journey.

By now, the band were playing larger venues and their music which was so wonderful on dancefloors or, personal experience here, on over-sized headphones, was perhaps a little too intricate for it too carry so well and so the band looked to move their sound on.

Enter Steve Lillywhite – grand British producer of Rock and New Wave, who had wanted to work with the band for quite a while.

Lillywhite had an inherent understanding of the post-punk/new wave sound having produced already for Siouxsie And The Banshees and The Psychedelic Furs, but also how that sound was developing into a bigger Rock-like setting. He had also created the breakthrough album “War” for U2 but perhaps most impressively (and I believe of more interest to the Minds) the unique and impressive Big Country debut “The Crossing”. After all, Stuart Admason had formed them out of a similar vintage of Scottish New Wave act, the Skids and taken them to worldwide success, even in the USA, which is still a surprising break-through for such an idiosyncratic sound.

So at the end of 1983, the first output from this new collaboration was released and it was very clear that Simple Minds were undergoing a dramatic change. “Waterfront” begins with Derek Forbes’s astonishing one-note bass pulse that beds down the entire track and then the thunderous cranked-up crash of Mel Gaynor’s drums and cymbals (a much-loved Steve Lillywhite trick) and you immediately realise that all the subtlety and nuance of “New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84” was no longer the desired effect.

This was a tremendous and entirely surprising new release that we just had not seen coming.

Instead of just rehashing their hard-earned success, Simple Minds had moved the game on again with a very different kind of recording. The album, “Sparkle In The Rain” which came out in early-1984 has also had the Super Deluxe treatment and this enhances even more what a different powerful sound the band were aiming for with the rhythm more rocky, the guitars more chiming and the vocal delivery even more pronounced. Try the opener and album highlight, “Up On The Catwalk” and its fusillade of drums opening up like cannons.

The fact is though that “Sparkle In The Rain” demonstrates all the characteristics of being ‘the album in the middle’. The transition point. Half works brilliantly, the other half, in retrospect is less successful as the band grow into their new skin.

And looking back the change is obvious.

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Some of the subtle obscurity of their early work is still there in tracks like “C’ Moon Cry Like A Baby” and “The Kick Inside Of Me” but is absolutely railroaded by the new arrangements and production. “East At Easter” and the excellent “Book Of Brilliant Things” are more fitted to this new Simple Minds way and create much wider music vistas as a result. Naturally enough, they would present themselves brilliantly in a live context when the stadiums came calling.

And then comes the big big moment – another “sell-out” moment for some fans, a true pinnacle for others – the really really famous single.

“Don’t You (Forget About Me)”.

Don’t you forget the brackets either.

A song the band didn’t write and most certainly didn’t really want to record. Indeed, its promo film filmed on Boxing Day caused such tension with bassist, Derek Forbes, over Jim Kerr’s screen time that ultimately, the tension he had felt being in the band would come to a head and he would leave before “Once Upon A Time”.

Of course, it would give them their first number one in the States, two years ahead of U2 it should be noted, and what can deservedly be called a ‘smash’ all over the world.

It had been written by Steve Schiff and Keith Forsey (who had been working largely with Billy Idol), were huge fans of the band and through whose enthusiasm, the band were eventually persuaded to make a recording for inclusion on the soundtrack of “The Breakfast Club”.

The band came up with a stunning vocal and guitar intro while Jim Kerr added the la-la-la-la-la chant at the end and largely thought little more of it. It would only be grudgingly acknowledged by the band initially and wouldn’t be included on “Once Upon A Time” which they were recording at the time.

Of course, it’s understandable that you work and work, develop your own sound and then someone comes from outside (admittedly in good faith) and the whole world changes. Sometimes people obviously know you better than you know yourself, and that’s not always something you want to find out.

Of course, it’s now hugely familiar with its understated verses and jaw-dropping chorus all wrapped in a series of drilling riffs, hooks and chants, but it would have a profound effect on the final part (and hero) of our story, “Once Upon A Time”.

For me, if an album could sound like my version of Scotland then it’s this one. Not Runrig or even The Proclaimers. It is tough, it is rugged and it is sweeping. There’s no filler on this album – every song has an epic quality but with catchy ear-friendly sensibilities.

The drums of Mel Gaynor are toned back a notch from “Sparkle In The Rain” but they still drive the narrative of each movement – my favourite being the closing powerful coda of the final song “Come A Long Way”, which is further complimented by a carefully crafted bassline from new member, John Giblin.

One of the most noticeable aspects of the album is undoubtedly that it had replaced the mysterious and subtle elements of “New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84” and which had rather confused the composition of “Sparkle In The Rain” with simpler lyrical constructs on songs like “I Wish You Were Here” that could more immediately find a route to the ears and hearts of their ever-growing global audience. A lesson from “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” one would imagine.

This came very much at the instigation of veteran producer, Jimmy Iovine, who constantly pushed the band to move themselves into new areas. “Sanctify Yourself” came famously from one last push at the mixing stage when it was felt that the album (rightly) needed one more song. It’s another great song that actually shows a more soulful side to their work and this is perhaps heightened by the introduction of backing vocalist, the awe-inspiring Robin Clark.

She would have an incredible impact on much of the work across the album providing a panoramic counterpoint to the already soaring vocals of Jim Kerr, adding more to the narrative impact of “All The Things She Said”. There’s also added excitement injected into the chanting building chorus of title track “Once Upon A Time” which once more elevates the entire production.

For those of you who have seen the excellent documentary “20 Feet From Stardom”, the importance of the backing vocalist has been given a much deserved place in the spotlight (ironically). Where would “Gimme Shelter” be without Merry Clayton? Probably the greatest backing vocal of all time, I would guess. However, Robin Clark on “Alive And Kicking” is definitely top 5; her work helps to take the song up into the stratosphere adding another texture some heavyweight drumming, an incessant chorus, throbbing bass and some excellent dropped-out moments putting Michael McNeil’s piano work front and centre.

About four years earlier, another Celtic band (and undoubtedly one of the most important) the Waterboys – of whom I promise plenty more on another occasion – introduced the concept of the Big Music. All the bands mentioned thus far had subscribed to this sound and it certainly had an unusually Celtic feel but “Alive And Kicking” is the greatest living example of “The Big Music”. It might be the soundtrack of all manner of compilations of triumph and victory but I don’t care – it’s bloody enormous and I feel brilliant listening to it.

All the musicianship on this album is of the very highest quality – Gaynor’s unstoppable rhythms and McNeil’s swirling keyboard work have already been mentioned but it is worth noting the excellent and passionate guitar work of Charlie Burchill that came much more to the fore in this recording. And this is the joy of Super Deluxe Editions as it allows us to get access to sometime forgotten mixes that can actually highlight the dexterity of the band and the extended remixes of “Oh Jungleland” and “Ghostdancing” capture their complexity and completeness at this time perfectly.

The mid-80s were a political time and there was plenty to rail against and Jim Kerr’s lyrics often did. Previously, “Waterfront” was a show of support to the workers of his hometown Glasgow and “Oh Jungleland” was another paean to the city and its sad neglect.   “All the Things She Said” was written about Lech Walesa and the Solidarnosc movement while “Ghostdancing” donated all it’s proceeds to Amnesty International.

Simple Minds were a band with a conscience and one that they backed up with action. They were the first to sign up for the American leg of Live Aid. They were very much the drivers of the Mandela birthday celebrations and regularly publicised social injustices as they saw them. However, like Midge Ure and Ultravox with Band Aid and Travis with Live 8, their contribution to the generation of awareness these events brought is often overlooked in favour of their more vocally aggressive partners from Dublin.

In “Once Upon A Time”, they brought some of these front and centre but never let them get in the way of a great record. It is after this when their stance became more blatantly obvious in “Street Fighting Years” and the hideous “Belfast Child” that I and a few others dropped away. Never has a band I loved fallen from grace with me as sharply as this.

I do not believe that it wasn’t heartfelt for one second – Simple Minds were never phoney – but Jim Kerr wanted to be a singer in a great band not the Team Captain of The Rest Of The World, like Bono.

Their “Unforgettable Fire” was undoubtedly an answer to “New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84” with a more subtle approach with Eno’s hand on the tiller. The “Joshua Tree” and its associated imagery was a response to the Minds success in the US and Bono’s political stances were more vocal and better stage managed.

I leave you with a thought which is that at Live Aid in the summer of 1985, would historyhave been different if U2 and Simple Minds had swapped venues. The UK was a more highly charged and emotional event (being there I would say that) but U2 seized their moment well whereas The Minds-  all billowing shirts and more unfamiliar anthems were a little lost out there in a world of REO Speedwagon and Kenny Loggins.

They were at the point in their careers when they would have smashed it at Wembley.

I do not think Simple Minds ever sold out. They would come back in later years with interesting work such as “Neapolis” and they always knew that their fans cared passionately about them and would forever look for new ways to keep them engaged both with new work and sensitive reappraisals of their past. Put simply, they had eight years of brilliant experimental and changing output that was always building to a perfect storm when their work and the world’s listening taste would combine. You can see the growth and the change and their deserved success story all comes together and, for me,  finishes (ironically) in “Once Upon A Time”.

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