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)?
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.
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.