Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mutant disco and punk-funk

VANESSA ELLISON (Pylon singer): During the summer, we were lining up shows in New York thanks to the wild success of The B-52's that year with "Rock Lobster".

The B-52's - Rock Lobster 1978

GLENN O'BRIEN (Journalist/Mudd Club dj): August Darnell of Kid Creole & The Coconuts had this vision that was very exotic. He thought that was the future of music - this exotic blend, sort of world music. To me, their stuff seems so modern, especially that "Que Pasa/Me No Pop I" record that Andy Hernandez from the Coconuts made as Coati Mundi. 

Coati Mundi - Que Pasa/Me No Pop I 1981

MICHAEL ZILKHA (Co-founder of ZE Records): When I first heard the debut single from Was (Not Was) "Wheel Me Out" I though that was much more than merely 'clever'. David Was was really out there.

Was (Not Was) - Wheel Me Out 1980

MICHAEL ZILKHA (Co-founder of ZE Records): With Material's "Bustin' Out", I wanted them to make a record with a disco beat and be as strange as they wanted on top. I wanted lots of heavy-metal guitar - this is way before Michael Jackson's "Beat It". They used Black Panther George Jackson's prison letters as the text and got Nona Hendryx to sing it. And they delivered exactly what I'd wanted. It was a cynical, manufactured record.

Material with Nona Hendryx - Bustin' Out 1981

PAT PLACE (Bush Tetras vocalist): I was sitting at my job at Bleecker Street Cinema when I jotted down those lyrics for "Too Many Creeps". The people on the streets were bugging me.

Bush Tetras - Too Many Creeps 1980

VIVIEN GOLDMAN (journalist/musician): I was friends with PiL and recorded the single "Launderette" in down time at the Manor studio when they were doing Flowers of Romance.

Vivien Goldman - Launderette 1981

RICHARD MCGUIRE (Liquid Liquid guitarist): I read that Afrika Bambaataa was playing Liquid Liquid's "Cavern" at the Roxy which is where [Grandmaster Flash] apparently heard it...When Flash appropriated "Cavern" for "White Lines" it was a mixed bag. Here's somebody you're in awe of, so it's a compliment.

Liquid Liquid - Cavern 1983

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five - White Lines 1983

RENEE SCROGGINS (ESG vocalist): With Martin Hannett we did "Moody", "UFO" and "You're No Good", which are now the 'classic' ESG songs.

ESG - Moody 1981

ESG - UFO 1981

ESG - You're No Good 1981

STEVEN MORRIS (New Order drummer): "Everything's Gone Green", that was when New Order found a direction again. That was the beginning of bringing the drum machine in and pressing the start button.

New Order - Everything's Gone Green 1981

PETER HOOK (New Order bassist): [Factory Records's New York representative] Michael Shamberg suggested that we work with Arthur Baker, because Arthur was really happening with [Rockers Revenge's] "Walking on Sunshine" and [Freeez's] "I.O.U.".

Rockers Revenge - Walking on Sunshine 1982

Freeez - I.O.U. 1983

BARNEY SUMNER (New Order vocalist): Arthur was working on Freeez at the same time which is probably why ["Confusion"] sounds similar.

New Order - Confusion 1983

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The lexicon of love: ABC and Trevor Horn

New Pop involved a renaissance of glam's interest in artifice and androginy, all the delicious games you could play with pop idolatry. Perhaps the climax of all these tendencies was the bizarre critical apotheosis of Dollar, a schlocky male-female duo who had broken away from the middle-of-the-road vocal troupe Guys and Dolls. Dollar had already garnered a smidgen of campy admiration from hipsters for their sheer plasticness, but when they teamed up with superproducer Trevor Horn, the duo's fabricated fakeness took on an almost conceptual extremity, as if they were a work of Pop Art.
The first two singles Horn co-wrote and produced for Dollar, "Hand Held in Black and White" and "Mirror Mirror" dazzled the ears with their futuristic hypergloss.

Dollar - Hand Held in Black and White 1981

Dollar - Mirror Mirror 1981

ABC's October 1981 debut single "Tears Are Not Enough" sounded almost like a New Pop manifesto (no time for wallowing or whining, strive and take pride) disguised as a song about heartbreak. However, it sounded like a scrawny demo for the spectacular sound they wanted. On Top of the Pops, singer Martin Fry wore a gold lamé suit, but it didn't sit right on his hulking frame; his dancing was awkward; his presence lacked authority. From sound to visuals, ABC were not yet walking it like they talked it. So they turned to Horn.

ABC - Tears Are Not Enough 1981 (Top of the Pops)

A lavish tempest of melodramatic grand piano chords, thunderous drums, and synth parts simulating string-sweeps and horn fanfares, "Poison Arrow" sounded like a million bucks had been spent on it, and, yes, it sounded superhuman. Yet at its core lay the DIY principle - not so much 'anyone can do it' but 'anyone can be a star'.

ABC - Poison Arrow 1982

The next single, the even more magnificently appointed "The Look of Love" - featuring real strings, angelic backing vocals, timpani and trumpets - peaked at number 4 in June 1982.
'Lexicon is all about Martin getting dumped by this specific girl', says Horn. 'All of the songs are about that anger and outrage he felt. And on "The Look of Love", when Martin sings, "When the girl has left you out on the table" and then there's a girl going, "Goodbye!", well, that's the girl. It was my suggestion - "Why don't we get the actual girl that you've wrote these songs for in to do the vocal?" It was very funny!'

ABC - The Look of Love 1982

Modelled on the theatre rather than cinema, the debut album The Lexicon of Love's front cover depicted Martin Fry as the dashing hero of a crime melodrama, brandishing a revolver, a fainting damsel clasped in his other arm. 

Flip to the back of the record, and the mise en scène is revealed as literally staged. We see the backroom people behind the theatrical spectacle, as played by the other members of ABC: the prompter reading from a script, a fatigued stagehand with a greasy quiff and cigarette tucked behind the ear, a flunky with a bouquet ready for the leading lady. It was all decidedly Brechtian.

"Date Stamp", at once the wittiest and most poignant song on Lexicon, recalled the imagery of Gang of Four's "Damaged Goods" - broken-hearted Fry is 'looking for a girl that meets supply with demand'. In a world where 'love has no guarantee', he's a discarded commodity whose sell-by date has expired. 'It was also a bit of a meta thing', he says, 'about transience and ephemerality in pop'.

ABC - Date Stamp 1982

"All of My Heart", ABC's third Top 10 single in a row, sounded chocolate-box but its sentiments rivalled Gang of Four's "Love Like Anthrax" for bracing unsentimentality. As Fry told The Face: "'All of My Heart' for me was saying skip the hearts and flowers and wash your hands of the whole sentimental glop, you know?"

ABC - All of My Heart 1982

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Quality and Distinction: Heaven 17 and British Electric Foundation

The first release from Heaven 17 was a full-blown protest song, "(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang", written in the gap between Reagan's election in November and his inauguration early in 1981. "Fascist Groove Thang" received a huge amount of press attention, and its catchy-as-hell electronic ersatz of disco-funk looked set to chart big. But the BBC grew nervous that lines like 'Reagan's President Elect/Fascist guard in motion' were slanderous and an unofficial Radio One ban effectively halted the single's rise just short of the Top 40.

Heaven 17 - (We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang 1981

To differentiate themselves from The Human League and put distance between Heaven 17 and the overdone synthpop sound, the duo of Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh developed for the debut album Penthouse and Pavement a pop-funk that merged state-of-the-art electronics with real bass and guitar. For "Fascist Groove Thang" they wanted a jazzy, sincopated bassline similar to the bass break in Chic's "I Want Your Love".

Chic - I Want Your Love 1978

Heaven 17's next single, the brilliant "I'm Your Money", was also something of a consciousness-raiser, transposing the language of business on to love and marriage ('I'm offering you the post of wife') à la Gang of Four's "Contract".

Heaven 17 - I'm Your Money 1981

Songs like "Play to Win" were also driven by an urge to throw off the shackles of Northern working-class inverted snobbery: Sheffield's traditional 'begrudgery', as Ware puts it, towards those who move to London to become big shots.

Heaven 17 - Play to Win 1981

The album's title track concerns the paradoxes of middle-class people trying to be 'street-credible' and the working classes wanting to rose to the top. 'That song is about social inequality, but also about the excitement of actually trying to make it. Not necessarily becoming rich, which is how it was interpreted - wrongly - by many people.

Heaven 17 - Penthouse and Pavement 1981

These ambiguities came to the fore with Penthouse's witty cover image - a painting, depicting the group as tie-wearing executives discussing business plans and negotiating deals, based on a corporate advertisement Marsh found in Newsweek. On the front, the logo of the production company BEF (British Electric Foundation) appeared above the slogan 'The New Partnership - That's opening doors all over the world', while the words 'Sheffield. Edinburgh. London' were placed directly under the Heaven 17 brand name. 
Posing as a multinational was simultaneously a send-up, wish fulfillment and an act of rock criticism. 'We were debunking the mythology of the musician as this wandering minstrel who gets ripped off by the record company and gets paid to take drugs all the time', says Ware. 'A reality check - Bob Dylan may think he's a rebel, but he's actually a multinational asset. Anybody who signs to a major label is part of a huge business machine. The idea was: "Let's get rid of all this hypocrisy of 'We're artists, we don't care about the money'. Let's strip the façade bare and have a look at what's underneath - handshakes, signing contracts, busy-ness'.

The next BEF's project, Music of Quality and Distinction, Volume One, consisted entirely of pop classics remade by BEF and most of the songs were collaborations with famous singers. It played some neat pop-critical games. Sandie Shaw covered "Anyone who Had a Heart", a tune generally associated with her sixties rival Cilla Black; Billy MacKenzie attempted to outdo his idol/prototype Bowie on a remake of "The Secret Life of Arabia" from 'Heroes'. But, apart from Tina Tuner's tour de force take on The Temptations' "Ball of Confusion", the new versions failed to surpass the originals.

BEF presents Billy MacKenzie - The Secret Life of Arabia 1982

BEF featuring Tina Turner - Ball of Confusion 1982

Friday, June 22, 2012

Deconstructionist pop: Scritti Politti Mark II

The first publicly aired work by the reborn Scritti was 'The "Sweetest Girl"' - 'a perversion and an extension of lovers' rock', declared Green. Sweet was the word, to an almost diabetic coma-inducing degree. Green crooned soft and high like Gregory Isaacs blended with Al Green. Underneath pulsed a rhythm section of crips drum machine and gentle-yet-steadfast bass. Green's hero Robert Wyatt dusted the luscious confection with ethereal flickers of reggae-style organ. Now Scritti's anxious compulsion to avoid conventional structures at al costs was gone, Green's melodic genius was unshackled and gushed forth in a flood of pure loveliness. But there was still a lingering undertone of the old Scritti's harmonic eeriness to put a tang of bitter in the sweet.

Scritti Politti - The "Sweetest Girl" 1981

The new Scritti's singles copied the stylish packaging of deluxe commodities: Dunhill cigarettes with 'The "Sweetest Girl"', Dior Eau Sauvage fragrance with "Faithless", Courvoisier brandy with "Asylums in Jerusalem". Green talked of admiring their 'cheap classiness' - the non-elitist elegance of commonly available consumer disposables.

'Desire' was a big buzzword in 1981. Drifting into popular culture from the world of critical theory, it retained an electric tinge of subversion. In "Jacques Derrida", Green personifies Desire as an insatiable she-monster: 'Rap-acious, rap-acious', he chants in a fey attempt at rapping, 'Desire is so voracious/I want her to eat your nation state'.

Scritti Politti - Jacques Derrida 1982

Green wanted to operate like pop's deconstructionist, unravelling the lore of the love song even as he revelled in the beauty generated by its dream-lies. 'The weakest link in every chain/I always want to find it', he crooned in 'The "Sweetest Girl"' 'The strongest words in each belief/To find out what's behind it'. The one mysticism he permitted himself was music itself - the endless mystery of melodic beauty. 'Faithless now, just got soul', he simultaneously lamented and rejoiced in "Faithless", a gorgeous song about the impossibility of belief, couched in the deep, testifying certainty of gospel.

Scritti Politti - Faithless 1982

"Asylums in Jerusalem", the third single from the new Scritti, was uptempo reggae with a cloying, caramel-sweet melody. It was catchy enough to get to the edge of the Top 40, but despite Rough Trade's strongest push to date and heavy radio support, it proved to be Scritti's third not-quite-a-hit in a row. Perhaps the Nietzsche-inspired lyrics were to blame - they lacked the common touch and didn't exactly resonate unless you were a student of continental philosophy.

Scritti Politti - Asylums in Jerusalem 1982

Like Orange Juice a year earlier, Green underwent the public humiliation of having talked loudly about 'pop' but not having become it. The problem lay partly with the music, which sounded underproduced, but mainly with the lyrics. "Sex" for instance, wasn't really about sex: Green described it as a 'gentle parody of me and my relationship with pop music'.

Scritti Politti - Sex 1982

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The sound of young Scotland: Josef K, The Fire Engines and The Associates

One of Josef K's best songs, "It's Kinda Funny", was inspired by Ian Curtis's death. 'I loved Joy Division and was really freaked out that he could take his own life aged twenty-three', recalls frontman Paul Haig. 'Just the thought of how easy it was to disappear through a crack in the world'. Nevertheless, he stresses that "It's Kinda Funny", while 'not a happy song', was 'still saying you don't have to be depressed about life - you can still laugh about it'.

Josef K - It's Kinda Funny 1980

Throughout the Josef K songbook, Haig sounds high on anxiety, finding an odd, giddy euphoria in doubt. Nourished by an intellectual diet of Penguin Modern Classics and European existentialism, songs like "Sorry for Laughing" ('there's too much happening') and "Radio Drill Time" ('we can glide into trance') addressed 'man's endless struggle'.

Josef K - Sorry for Laughing 1981

Josef K- Radio Drill Time 1980

On their masterpiece, "Endless Soul", the singer's suave croon surfs the fraught glory of Josef K's guitars, as if trying to strike the correct, flattering posture in the face of 'the absurdity of being alive in a godless, vacuous universe', as Haig puts it.

Josef K - Endless Soul

On The Fire Engines' archetypal tune "Discord", high-toned beetling bass and loping drums create a nervous, hyperactive funk; the guitars throw out electric sparks like live wires that are cut and writhing, while singer Davey Henderson yelps like a pixie version of James Brown at his most agitated.

The Fire Engines - Discord 1980

For the next single, "Candyskin", Pop:Aural's owner Bob Last hired half a dozen string players - 'not as expensive as you might imagine' - to add a hilariously incongrous symphonic patina tot he group's jagged sound.

The Fire Engines - Candyskin 1981

For their self-released debut single, The Associates covered Bowie's "Boys Keep Swinging". As a way of announcing themselves to the world, it neatly combined homage to one of the biggest influences on singer Billy MacKenzie's vocal style and sheer hubris (their version came out in late 1979, only months after Bowie's original had left the charts).

The Associates - Boys Keep Swinging 1979

In August 1980, just as the music-press buzz about Scotland was building, Fiction released the debut Associates album, The Affectionate Punch: windswept never-never pop. The striking cover image showed MacKenzie and fellow Associate Alan Rankine as athletes hunched together at the start of a running track - a 'clean', healthy, faintly Nietzschean image expressing the singer's belief that music, bodily movement and physical fitness were closely related. 'Bill had been a very good runner. I had been a very good tennis player', recalls Rankine. 'So that imagery was related to trying to be...not superior exactly, but rising above ther shit and nonsense of rock 'n' roll and the music business'.

The music The Associates produced during their speed-addled sessions was 'psychedelic' - not in any literal, flashback-to-1967 way, but in its pursuit of mutated sounds, saturated textures and unusual instrumentation. 'We got into glockenspiels, xylophones, vibraphones, but using them in a manic way that hadn't been done before', recalls Rankine. 'We also did vocal treatments - "Kitchen Person" has Bill singing down the long tubing off a vacuum cleaner, while on "White Car in Germany", some of the vocals were literally sung through a greaseproof paper and a comb!'

The Associates - Kitchen Person 1981

Possibly The Associates' all-time classic, "White Car in Germany" taps into the un-American "Europe Endless"-ness of Bowie's Berlin trilogy: MacKenzie operatically declaims cryptic lines like 'Walk on eggs in Munich' and 'Düsseldorf's a cold place/Cold as spies can be' over a metronomic march rhythm.

The Associates - White Car in Germany 1981

"Q Quarters", another immortal classic, sounds like Habsburg dub. Its furtive rhythm, broken balalaika riff, echoing footsteps, and dank electronic atmospheres evoke Cold War scenarios: The Third Man and The Ipcress File, partitioned cities, deportations, informers and double agents. 'Ooh, that's a dark song", says Rankine. 'Bill just let rip with the imagery. The line "Washing down bodies seems to me a dead-end chore" comes from his grandma, who had worked in the morgue during the Second World War'.

The Associates - Q Quarters 1981

Friday, June 15, 2012

Falling and Laughing: Orange Juice and the birth of indie pop

Orange Juice's debut single, "Falling and Laughing", released in the spring of 1980, signalled the return of unabashed romance. Renouncing post-punk's demystification, Collins proclaimed the sacred singularity of his sweetheart: 'You say there's a thousand like you/Well maybe that's true/I fell for you and nobody else'.
Orange Juice's sense of humour was also crucial. That was why it was called "Falling and Laughing": in the song, Collins proposed a merry sense of one's own absurdity as a salve for love's humiliations - 'What can I do but learn to laugh at myself?' Love tore you apart again, and again, but in Orange Juice's world, heartbreak always came with a side order of quips.

Orange Juice - Falling and Laughing 1980

You can hear a touch of Vic Godard in Orange Juice's lyrics: the preference for charmingly quaint, staunchly un-American language, like the chorus 'Goodness gracious/You're so audacious' singer Edwyn Collins simpers archly on "In a Nutshell".

Orange Juice - In a Nutshell 1982

"Simply Thrilled Honey", their third single, made sensitivity subversive. Based on a real incident, it depicted Collins as a shrinking violet - the reluctant prey of a female seducer. Collins told Sounds, 'I didn't want to go to bed with her. I wasn't sexually attracted to her but, above all, I didn't love her. And I think it's really important to only go to bed with someone if you love them - that's what the line "wordliness must keep apart from me" means...There is such a pressure on boys to be manly...I find going to bed with somebody you don't love...disorientating'.

Orange Juice - Simply Thrilled Honey 1980

In "Consolation Prize", Orange Juice's loveliest song of all, Collins try to woo a girl away from her boyfriend, a mean mistreater who has 'crumpled up' her face in tears countless times, whereas Edwyn makes her laugh with his 'so frightfully camp' Roger McGuinn fringe. Collins even contemplates buying a dress to cheer her up. 'I'll be you consolation prize', he pleads. In the end, he's resigned to remain unrequited, but as Orange Juice's golden cascades of guitars propel the song towards a climactic slow fade, Collins almost rejoices in the fact that 'I'll never be man enough for you'. He sounds exultant rather than mournful, triumphant not defeated.

Orange Juice - Consolation Prize 1982

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Other synthpop acts: Japan, Soft Cell, DAF and The League Unlimited Orchestra

Almost overnight, Japan became incredibly hip. Critical praise began to accumulate around "The Art of Parties" single, turning into an avalanche for Tin Drum, a loose concept album about Mao's China.

 "Ghosts", an electronic ballad eerily shaded with flittering synths but devoid of a beat or bassline, went Top 10 - the cue for a compelling Top of the Pops appearance, with the pale, still David Sylvian drawing the world into his hush.

Japan - Ghosts (Top of the Pops) 1981

"Bedsitter", Soft Cell's second Top 5 hit, documented singer Marc Almond's lifestyle, alternating between a crampled flat and the hollow glitz of the New Romantic scene-dream. According to Almond the song came from 'living in really grotty bedsitters...[then] going out at night to clubs looking glamorous...Sort of mixing...the glitter with squalor...I used to wonder about these really glamorous people: what do they look like doing the dishes?' 

Soft Cell - Bedsitter 1981

For the debut album, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret, Soft Cell voyaged to New York to soak up the scuzz, recording songs like "Seedy Films" and "Sex Dwarf" in a studio near Times Square. 

 If this first album played up the sleaze to an almost cartoon degree, the 1983 follow-up, The Art of Falling Apart, deepened Almond's obsession with beautiful losers into a harrowed empathy for the broked and discarded of this world.

'DAF (Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft) were into deliberately taunting the German media by tackling Nazi and sex taboos head on - part of the confrontation being in the seemingly ambiguous use of Nazi imagery/references', says Chris Bohn, the NME journalist who championed DAF and other early Eighties German art-punk groups. DAF broached this dodgy terrain with songs like "Der Mussolini" - its chorus: 'Dance der Mussolini/Dance der Adolf Hitler'. 

DAF - Der Mussolini 1981

"Der Mussolini" and their first Virgin album, Alles Is Gut, sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Germany in 1981, making DAF the fifth-biggest German-speaking pop group in the country, and the focus of much media controversy.

Gold und Liebe, the second Virgin album. touched on an alchemical theme: instead of chasing the profane gold of material wealth, the true quest is for gold of the spirit.

The Human League's producer Martin Rushent  suggested making an instrumental version of Dare, hoping to showcase his production skills to the hilt and establish a new benchmark for electronic dance pop. Credited to The League Unlimited Orchestra - a cute nod to Barry White's instrumental project, The Love Unlimited Orchestra - Love and Dancing was released in June 1982: the back cover pointedly depicted the entire team behind the making of Dare, with photos of Rushent, studio engineer Dave Allen and even sleeve designer Ken Ansell, as well as the band.

By the end of 1982, the deluge of synthpop artists - Thomas Dolby, The Eurythmics, Blancmange, Tears for Fears et al. - had diluted the impact of electronics. The Human League's next single "(Keep Feeling) Fascination" did feature some electric guitar, signalling the abandonment of the band's 'synths only' policy. It was the end of an era. 

The Human League - (Keep Feeling) Fascination 1983

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Human League make it big: Dare and Don't You Want Me

"Sound of the Crowd" was the first fruit of Phil Oakey's songwriting partnership with Ian Burden, formerly the bassist in Graph, an experimental Sheffield band. 'I still reckon that song is one of the maddest records that's ever got in the Top 20', says Oakey. 'The whole thing runs on tom-toms, but they're synth toms, and it's got very odd screaming sounds'. There's also a foreboding dub feel of bass pressure and cold, cavernous space (Burden was a reggae fiend). "Sound of the Crowd" also featured backing vocals from tow other new recruits, Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley.

"Love Action" and "Open Your Heart", the rejuvenated League's next two chartbusting singles, were practically manifestos for a new humanized-not-Numanized direction in electropop. In a weird way, "Love Action" sounds like its title: pulsing and glistening, an iridescent affirmation. Yet, for all its warmth and wetness, "Love Action" still retains something of the aberrant quality of "Sound of the Crowd", making it an unlikely candidate for a number 3 hit. 'It's not got a proper chorus', admits Oakey. It's basically two different songs bolted together: the verses, from a song called "I Believe in Love" are 'confessional nonsense, what I was feeling at the time', says Oakey, while the angular not-quite-a-chorus section is from another songs about watching Sylvia Kristel in the softcore erotic movie Emmanuelle.

Released in October 1981, Dare presented a perfect meld of tradition and innovation. "The Things that Dreams Are Made of" saw Oakey reeling off a list of life-enhancing stuff over electronicized Glitterbeat: 'Everybody needs love and adventure/Everybody needs cash to spend...Everybody needs two or three friends'.

"I Am the Law" turned The Clash's "I Fought the Law" inside out - it was a sympathetic song about authority and the police inspired by Oakey's encounter with an injured bouncer back when he was working as a hospital porter.

"Don't You Want Me", the fourth single off Dare and the Christmas number 1 for 1981, was their most sonically conventional single yet, from its perky groove to its trim verse/chorus structure. "Don't You Want Me" further underlined the importance of Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley to The Human League: their biggest hit was the one that gave the greatest prominence to their modest vocals. A duet between Oakey and Sulley, it deliciously rewrites the story of how 'the girls' were discovered and projects five years into the future. Oakey sings as the Svengali who plucks a girl from obscurity ('You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar') and turns her into 'someone new', only to be abandoned by his protégé-lover now she has the world at her feet. Defiant (if ever so slightly off key), Sulley sings the part of the provincial dreamer who always knew deep down she was destined for better things, and is now determined to make her own path in life. (In reality, it was Catherall who became Oakey's girlfriend).
The "Don't You Want Me" video added further layers of artifice. A Brechtian conundrum, it depicted the band making a promo, cutting between scenes from the video-within-a-video and action off-set or in the editing suite (the band watching their own rushes). 'I don't know where that idea came from originally, whether it was Phil's or the director Steve Barron's', says Bob Last. 'But from the band's point of view, a great deal of the appeal was that it was a film, shot on 35mm - something that was extremely unusual in those very early days of the video industry. And that was a straightforwardly aspirational thing: the idea of doing a video with high production values. If you look at the promo, there's a big film camera prominent in it. And from a marketing standpoint, it was very smart, because here were these girls in the band who really were "regular girls" now appearing in a movie. It just made perfect sense'.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Electronic Dreams: The Human League, Gary Numan, Ultravox, Visage, Spandau Ballet

A hit single continued to elude The Human League. As if to rub salt in their wounds, on the eve of the release of their second album Travelogue, pop-punkers The Undertones took the piss out of the band in their Top 10 hit "My Perfect Cousin". Kevin, the song's goody-two-shoes subject (he's got a degree 'in economics, maths, physics and bionics') starts an electronic band with some art-school boys. 'His mother bought him a synthesizer', spits singer Feargal Sharkey with disgust, 'Got The Human League in to advise her'. Now that he's in a band, Kevin has girls chasing him, 'But what a shame/It's in vain...Kevin, he's in love with himself'. This pretty much crystallized the early Human League's public image - music for narcissistic art-school poseurs and science geeks.

The Undertones - My Perfect Cousin 1980

Their first album Reproduction's big single, "Empire State Human", concerned a man who keeps on growing.  

The Human League - Empire State Human 1979

Travelogue's "The Black Hit of Space" imagines a record so monstrously bland it turns into a kind of predatory cultural void sucking up everything in its path. As it climbs the charts, the rest of the Top 40 disappears 'until there was nothing but it left to buy'. But all the clever astrophysical details (gravity being so multiplied in proximity to the disc that your record player's tone arm weighs 'more than Saturn', etc.) only confirmed the band's nerdy image.

The Human League - The Black Hit of Space 1980

Gary Numan's music rocked, and even when it didn't, it possessed an almost symphonic grandeur - just listen to his most chillingly beautiful song, "Down in the Park", a sort of dystopian power ballad.

Gary Numan and Tubeway Army - Down in the Park 1979

Gary's sullen pout and wounded eyes made for a perfect pin-up in the classic teenybop tradition, with transgender appeal: girls dreamed of thawing the iceman, bringing him back to life; boys identified with his loneliness, allegorized in songs like "M.E.". Here Numan sang from the point of view of 'the last living machine' on an earth where all the people have died. 'Its own power source is running down. I used to have a picture in my mind of this sad and desperately alone machine standing in a desert-like wasteland, just waiting to die', he said.

Gary Numan - M.E. 1979

As for the atmosphere of numb anomie and alienated sexuality, Ultravox laid it all on the table with the debut's manifesto-like "I Want to be a Machine" and Ballard-damaged "My Sex". 'My Sex is a spark of electro flesh', sings John Foxx. 'A neon outline on a high-rise overspill...skyscraper shadows on a car-crash overpass...It wears no future faces, owns just random gender'.

Ultravox - I Want to be a Machine 1977

Ultravox - My Sex 1977

Visage songs like "Fade to Grey" and "The Damned Don't Cry" conjured what Mark Fisher called 'the Euro-aesthete's "exhaustion from life"', especially in tandem with the videos, which evoked pre-war desolation derived from Cabaret and Fritz Lang.

Visage - Fade to Grey 1980

Visage - The Damned Don't Cry 1982

With impeccable timing, the late summer of 1980 saw David Bowie staging his comeback with a number 1 hit, "Ashes to Ashes", which tapped into the same effete, melancholy mood and European electronic sound, as if to remind everybody that he'd done it first with side two of Low. Visage's frontman Steve Strange, dressed as a pierrot, made an appearance in the "Ashes" video.

David Bowie - Ashes to Ashes 1980

Instead of looking westwards for inspiration, the New Romantics pointedly turned their gaze to the east - Germany, obviously, but also Russia. Visage recorded a song called "Moon over Moscow", while Spandau Ballet, the other major group of the scene, plunged into Cossack/Constructivist kitsch with their single "Musclebound".

Visage - Moon Over Moscow 1980

Spandau Ballet - Musclebound 1981

Singer Tony Hadley's operatic vocals bore scant relation to black music. Picking up on the reference to Spandau - site of a purpose-built prison in western Berlin, where Nazi leaders such as Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer were incarcerated - and the neo-classical marble torso on the cover of their debut album Journeys to Glory, neo-fascist magazine Bulldog hailed Spandau as fine exponents of 'musclebound, Nordic' art. New Romanticism, for them, represented a natural aristocracy: the collective narcissism of a self-chosen few. 'I am beautiful and clean and so very, very young' as Hadley crooned on their first hit, "To Cut a Long Story Short".

Spandau Ballet - To Cut a Long Story Short 1980

Meanwhite Ultravox - reformed by keyboardist Billy Currie when he sensed that the pop weather had finally changed in their favour, and with Midge Ure as its new singer - plunged into full-blown Teutonica with the quasi-classical "Vienna". Wreathed in the sonic equivalent of dry ice, this ludicrously portentous ballad, inspired by a vague notion of a past-its-prime Habsburg Empire sliding into decadence, reached number 2 in the charts in the first weeks of 1981 and hovered there for what seemed like an eternity.

Ultravox - Vienna 1980

The sound Martin Rushent and Buzzock frontman Pete Shelley developed was a transitional hybrid of guitar-based New Wave and electropop, heard at its best on the superb single "Homo Sapien". Released in August 1981, "Homo Sapien" was a coded coming-out for Shelley, but the single's innuendoes (the fruity way Shelley enunciates 'homo sapien', plus couplets like 'homo superior/my interior') provoked an unofficial ban from Radio One, and this fatally thwarted its chart prospects.

Pete Shelley - Homo Sapien 1981

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sex Gang Children: the rise and fall of Bow Wow Wow

Bow Wow Wow's second release, Your Cassette Pet, continued to exploit the underage-sex angle. In "Sexy Eiffel Tower, singer Annabella Lwin plays a suicidal girl about to leap from the top of Paris's most famous landmark. She gets implausibly horny in the proximity of death: 'Feel my treasure chest/Let's have sex before I die/Be my special guest'. Plunging through the air ('Falling legs around your spire') she enjoys a petit mort or two before the grand mort of hitting the ground. Annabella claimed, with apparent sincerity, that the panting sounds she expertly imitated weren't meant to be orgasm but the sound of panic.

Bow Wow Wow - Sexy Eiffel Tower 1980

"Louis Quatorze" concerns a pervy bandit-of-love who surprises Annabella with unannounced visits and ravishment at gunpoint. The music, though, almost vanquished any moral reservations: Bow Wow Wow had developed an exhilarating and unique sound, all frolicking polyrhythms, twangabilly guitar and frantic-but-funky bass. Add Annabella's girlish, euphoric vocals - especially charming on a cover of the Johnny Mercer standard "Fools Rush In" - and the results were irresistible.

Bow Wow Wow - Louis Quatorze 1980

Bow Wow Wow - Fools Rush In 1980

More striking than its contents, though, was Your Cassette Pet's radical format: a cassette-only release midway in length between an EP and an album, it retailed at only £1.99 (half the price of a traditional vinyl album) and came in a 'flip-pack' carton similar to a cigarette packet.

McLaren's contrived controversies kept backfiring. Desperate to stir up some buzz for Bow Wow Wow's debut album proper, he designed its cover as a simulation of Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, Manet's 1863 painting denounced as 'indecent' by Napoleon III for its image of a naked woman surrounded by fully clothed men. Annabella posed nude (under duress, she later revealed) but because she was still just under sixteen, her mother managed to stop the cover from being used. 

Another blow for McLaren came with the commercial failure of "Chihuahua" - simultaneously Bow Wow Wow's most seductive single to date and their manager's most blatantly cynical gambit. Mouthing McLaren's words to a wistful, Blondie-like melody, Annabella sang about being 'a rock 'n' roll puppet', confessing, 'I can't dance and I can't sing/I can't do anything' and warning, 'I'm a horrible idiot/So don't fall in love with me'. You could mount a defence of "Chihuahua" as a sly deconstruction of the pop industry's machinery of star-lust and fantasy. But if you consider McLaren's genuine anti-feminism, his real-world treatment of Annabella as meat, and the way he ventriloquized those humiliating words through Annabella's own lips, "Chihuahua" leaves a bad taste.

Bow Wow Wow - Chihuahua 1981

Finally, Bow Wow Wow scored their UK pop breakthrough in early 1982 with "Go Wild in the Country", an anti-urban fantasy featuring risqué lines about swinging naked from the trees and romping in fields 'where snakes in the grass are absolutely free'. "Go Wild" exhorted youth to spurn KFC and McDonalds and go 'hunting and fishing'.

Bow Wow Wow - Go Wild in the Country 1982

On the sultry, bossa nova-inflected "Hello Hello Daddy, I'll Sacrifice You", Annabella played the role of devouring earth-mother goddess as a coquette with a knife behind her back. The sweetly crooned lines about woman being 'more body than soul and more soul than mind' were vintage McLaren misoginy cobbled together from Lévi-Strauss, Jung and The Golden Bough.

Bow Wow Wow - Hello Hello Daddy, I'll Sacrifice You 1982

By the time Bow Wow Wow scored their second UK Top 10 hit and American breakthrough with "I Want Candy" - an exciting but vacuous remake of a sixties bubblegum tune - McLaren had pretty much ceased managing the band.

Bow Wow Wow - I Want Candy 1982

Friday, March 9, 2012

Malcolm McLaren, Bow Wow Wow and Adam & The Ants

In the summer of 1979 Virgin released Some Product: Carri On, a hastily assembled album of Pistols radio interviews, complete with a cover depicting imaginary Sex Pistols spin-off merchandise - 'Fatty Jones' chocolate bars, a 'Vicious Burger', a Sid action doll complete with coffin.

The Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren ended up half-heartedly managing a London band called Adam & The Antz. Adam was an ex-art-school punk who'd built up a devoted cult following with mildly kinky songs like "Whip in my Valise" and "Beat My Guest".

Adam & The Antz - Whip in my Valise 1979

Adam & The Antz - Beat My Guest 1979

But the singer also had a mind of his own, and McLaren flinched from the prospect of dealing with another Johnny Rotten. Sensing that the band would be far more malleable, he connived with the Antz to sack their leader, and at the end of 1979 he gave Adam the bad news at a rehearsal.
McLaren proposed the new band, now called Bow Wow Wow, as a victory over Thatcherism. Rather than take the obvious post-punk path and bemoan mass unemployment, though, he mischievously framed the absence of work as liberation rather than affliction. Bow Wow Wow's "W.O.R.K. (N.O. Nah NO! NO! My Daddy Don't)" declared, 'Demolition of the work ethic takes us to the age of the primitive'. Going to school was pointless because its function (socializing youth for a life of labour) had been outmoded. 'T.E.K. technology is DEMOLITION of DADDY/Is A.U.T. Autonomy', goes the chorus chant, taking the Situationist fantasy of automation enabling a utopian future of perpetual play and updating it for the microchip era.

Bow Wow Wow - W.O.R.K. (N.O. Nah NO! NO! My Daddy Don't) 1981

Again, this attitude put McLaren ahead of the curve: Wham! rode exactly this carefree/careless attitude to fame a few years later, with the pro-dole "Wham Rap!" (a rewrite of "W.O.R.K.", essentially) and the sunshine anthem "Club Tropicana".

Wham! - Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do) 1983

Wham! - Club Tropicana 1983

McLaren penned lyrics praising cassette piracy and got the ex-Antz to write Burundi-rumbling backing music. But in July 1980, despite getting acres of press and hours of radio play, the debut single "C-30, C-60, C-90 Go!" stalled just outside the Top 30.

Bow Wow Wow - C-30, C-60, C-90 Go! 1980

In the meantime, in the winter of 1980, Adam Ant's singles "Dog Eat Dog", "Ant Music" and "Kings of the Wild Frontier" smashed their way one by one into the UK Top 10. Adam's sheer self-belief lent a weird sort of conviction to ludicrous lines like 'Don't tread on an ant/He's done nothing to you/Might come a time/When he's treading on you'.

Adam & the Ants - Dog Eat Dog 1980

Adam & the Ants - Ant Music 1980

Adam & the Ants - Kings of the Wild Frontier 1980

Adam's zenith came with "Prince Charming", his September 1981 UK chart topper, and one of the strangest hit singles ever. Its keening coyote-yowl melody resembled a Native American battle cry; the beat lurched disconcertingly, a waltz turning into an aboriginal courthship dance. For the video, Adam glides between a series of arrested poses, frozen tableaux of defiance and hauteur that weirdly anticipate 'vogueing', the New York gay underground's form of competitive dancing inspired by photo spreads in fashion mags. At the end of the video, Adam impersonates a gallery of icons - Rudolph Valentino, Alice Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Marlon Brando. Song and video both expose a certain empty circularity to Adam's neo-glam idea of reinventing yourself: imitate me as I've imitated my heroes. The chorus is oddly brittle and defensive ('Ridicule is nothing to be scared of') while the ultimate message - dressing up in fancy finery as a way of flaunting self-respect - feels distinctly trite.

Adam & the Ants - Prince Charming 1981

"Prince Charming" ultimately suggested that Adam's destiny was to run through history's wardrobe until he ran out of heroic archetypes. He'd already done highwaymen with the previous number 1 single, "Stand and Deliver".

Adam & the Ants - Stand and Deliver 1981

In the video for "Ant Rap", the next big hit from the Prince Charming album, he dressed up as a knight in shining armour.

Adam & the Ants - Ant Rap 1981

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

End of a revival: Madness and Dexys Midnight Runners during the '80s

A sense of place, always present in Madness's music (the cover of Absolutely, their second album, showed them outside Chalk Farm tube station) gradually intensified, climaxing with 1982's The Rise and Fall.

Here Madness shouldered past the 'new Kinks' tag and lunged for 'new Beatles' status. The front cover of the gatefold sleeve was a Magical Mystery Tour-like tableau of the band atop Parliament Hill and garbed in semi-surreal attire. 

Inside, "Our House" (another massive hit) was Madness's "Penny Lane", bittersweet nostalgia for the familiar surroundings of childhood.

Madness - Our House 1982

On "Primrose Hill" - Madness's "Strawberry Fields" - they even hired prog arranged David Bedford to write brass-band orchestration.

Madness - Primrose Hill 1982

Kevin Rowland's new 'new soul vision' was heralded in March 1982 with "The Celtic Soul Brothers", which replaced the old Dexys horn fanfares with the jaunty jangle of mandolins and boisterous folksy violins (supplied by the Emerald Express Fiddlers).

Dexys Midnight Runners - The Celtic Soul Brothers 1982

The follow-up "Come on Eileen" was a massive number 1 in the summer of 1982 - in Britain, America and around the world. Accompanied by an unexpectedly playful video, "Eileen" was an honest-to-goodness love song. Rowland archly admitted to having impure thoughts: 'You in that dress/My thoughts I confess/Verge on dirty'.

Dexys Midnight Runners - Come On Eileen 1982

Another massive hit, a cover of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said", acknowledged the heavy debts the new Dexys owed to the latter's 'Caledonian Soul' sound of Irish folk-infused R&B.

Dexys Midnight Runners - Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile) 1982

Rowland's response to fame was the calculated career-suicide move of 1985's Don't Stand Me Down, which featured no singles, just eleven-minute songs including bizarre comic dialogues like "This Is What She's Like", rants against the English upper classes and meta-soul exercises like "The Occasional Flicker".

Dexys Midnight Runners - This Is What She's Like 1985

Dexys Midnight Runners - The Occasional Flicker 1985

On the front cover, Dexys made a final confounding image shift: they appeared wearing ties, pin-stripe suits and neatly combed hair, looking for all the world like investment bankers in a photo for a corporate prospectus. 'So clean and simple; it's a much more adult approach now', said Rowland, rationalizing what in some senses was mod logic taken to the extreme: dressing like the ruling class.

2-Tone signposted its sources and reference points with countless remakes, tribute songs and interpolations (like the 'no gimme no more pickneys' vocal lick from Lloyd Charmers' "Birth Control", borrowed on The Special's "Too Much Too Young").

Lloyd Charmers - Birth Control 1969

The Specials - Too Much Too Young 1980

Even the 2-Tone logo - a black-and-white figure representing the imaginary rude boy Walt Jabsco - was modelled on a photo of the young Peter Tosh from The Wailers.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Post-ska Specials and Fun Boy Three

In September 1980 the new post-ska Specials sound was unveiled with the double A-sided single "Stereotypes" and "International Jet Set". The former whisked together a kitschedelic meringue of movie-score and lounge-music motifs: balalaikas and Cossack choirs, mariachi trumpets and milky-sounding organ pulses, all gently propelled by the pitter of programmed drum beats. The lyrics revisited the leisure grindstone of "Nite Klub" but in a more wry and distanced fashion, caricaturing a young piss-head who 'drinks his age in pints', drives while inebriated, and ends up 'wrapped round a lamp-post on Saturday night'.

The Specials - Stereotypes 1980

"International Jet Set" was even more eerie and evocative. Laced with Casio-rumba rhythms and swirling Wurlitzer organs, it's a tale of frequent-flyer paranoia, sung by Terry Hall in a high-pitched, highly strung whinny. To Hall, barely able to keep his panic in check, a group of jovial businessmen 'Seem so absurd to me/Like well-dressed chimpazees'. His fear of flying turns out to be justified: the plane has to make an emergency landing and the captain's voice is revealed as just a recording.

The Specials - International Jet Set 1980

Dammers had fallen in love with the studio and its possibilities for endless overdubs and fine tunings in pursuit of absolute perfection (a passion that would ultimately be ruinous). But not everyone in the band cared for this new producer-dominated direction: John Bradbury and Roddy Radiation both preferred high-energy sounds (Northern Soul and rockabilly, respectively). As a result, the second album More Specials was ultimately something of a motley compromise, a ragbag of revivalisms. Only the nuclear doomsday fantasy "Man at C&A" approached the full-blown film-soundtrack/Muzak fusion Dammers achieved on both sides of the single.

The Specials - Man at C&A 1980

More Specials announced the end of the black-and-white 2-Tone aesthetic with its full-colour cover: a blurry snapshot of the band relaxing (astonishingly, some of them were even smiling).

"Do Nothing", the next single off the album, was oddly subdued and fatalistic, a downtempo rock-steady number about a stylish layabout who mooches down the High Street, 'trying to find a future'. The only ray of sunshine comes from the pair of new shoes on his feet. Yet the song seems to see right through the mod fantasy - dressing well as the best revenge over you social superiors, style as a magical solution. In a land where 'nothing ever changes', Hall sings, 'Fashion is my only culture'.

The Specials - Do Nothing 1980

Inspired equally by a trip to Kingston, Jamaica, and by witnessing the effect of Thatcher's policies on Coventry's economy and nightlife, "Ghost Town" sketched a sonic portrait of de-industrialization. The song starts with the desolate whistle of wind rustling through a deserted town. A wraith-like woodwind instrument drifts into earshot, soon joined by what sounds like a Wurlitzer playing in a long-derelict cinema. The lyrics contrast the gaiety of the good-old days (the roaring nightlife back when workers had money to burn) with the present of idle factories and boarded-up nightclubs. Near the end, "Ghost Town" cuts from Hall's exhausted sigh, 'Can't go on no more' to Staple's baleful 'People gettin' angry'. Finally, the song strips down to just bass and drums and the return of that whistling wind - so chillingly cinematic you can almost see the tumbleweeds.

The Specials - Ghost Town 1981

Two superb tracks on the flipside made the whole record a kind of concept EP: three angles on the British way of living death. Lynval Golding's "Why" addressed the racist thugs who'd attacked him outside the Moonlight Club the previous year, asking plaintively, 'Did you really want to kill me?' Then the more belligerent Staple steps forward to shout down the fascist British Movement: 'You follow like sheep inna wolf's clothes'.

The Specials - Why 1981

Wonderfully wan and listless, Terry Hall's "Friday Night, Saturday Morning" subverts The Easybeats mod classic "Friday On My Mind" with its depiction of a wage slave's dismal idea of big fun: sinking pints at the Locarno while watching other people pick each other up, then waiting at the taxi-rank in the small hours (a meat pie in his hand, one foot planted in someone else's spew) wishing 'I had lipstick on my collar instead of piss stains on my shoes'.

The Specials - Friday Night, Saturday Morning 1981

The Easybeats - Friday On My Mind 1966

After the brilliant but commercially suicidal single "The Boiler" (a harrowing rape account recited by Rhoda Dakar of The Bodysnatchers, 2-Tone's all-girl group) Dammers produced a trilogy of protest singles - "Racist Friend", "War Crimes" and "Nelson Mandela" - whose sentiments were admirable but whose sonic execution lacked almost everything that had made The Specials special.

The Specials with Rhoda Dakar - The Boiler 1982

The Specials - Racist Friend 1983

The Specials - War Crimes 1982

The Specials - Nelson Mandela 1984

Fun Boy Three, the band formed by ex-Specials Golding, Hall and Staple, meanwhile scored a series of hits that were alternatively glum (the Reagan/Thatcher-inspired "The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum"; the world (affairs) weary "The More I see the Less I Believe") and jolly (two Top 5 singles in partnership with all-girl trio Bananarama).

Fun Boy Three - The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum 1981

Fun Boy Three - The More I See the Less I Believe 1982

Fun Boy Three with Bananarama - It Ain't What You Do... 1982

Bananarama with Fun Boy Three - Really Saying Something 1982

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Searching for the Young Soul Rebels: Dexys Midnight Runners

Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, Dexys Midnight Runners debut album, starts with the sound of a radio dial being turned, someone scouring the airwaves for the next working-class-saviour band. There's a burst of the Pistols' "Holidays in the Sun" and a blare of The Specials' "Rat Race" before frontman Kevin Rowland blurts, 'For God's sake, burn it down!' and Dexys launch into their first song.

Dexys Midnight Runners -  Burn It Down 1980

"Geno", Dexys first number 1 single, was pure meta-pop: a homage to sixties mod hero Geno Washington. Rowland's older brother had taken him to see Washington when he was only eleven. Rowland reminisces about the inspirational force of this first gig of his life, comparing Washington to the mod's pills of choice: 'That man was my bombers, my Dexys, my high'.

Dexys Midnight Runners - Geno 1980

The follow-up single, "There, There My Dear" went even further into the land of meta-pop: it's a vitriolic riposte to a sceptic (seemingly a real person, and most likely either a trend-hopping music journalist or a pretentious musician) who had the temerity not to 'welcome the new soul vision'. "There, There" also contains the classic class-war couplet, 'The only way to change things/Is to shoot men who arrange things'.

Dexys Midnight Runners - There, There My Dear 1980

"I Couldn't Help It If I Tried" recounts Rowland's attempt to organize a strike only to be let down by his workmates.

Dexys Midnight Runners - I Couldn't Help It If I Tried 1980

"Dance Stance" savaged people who tell jokes about stupid Irishmen but don't know about Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan and the rest.

Dexys Midnight Runners - Dance Stance 1979

The cover of Searching showed a photo of a Belfast Catholic boy carrying his belongings after being driven from his neighbourhood during the sectarian clearances of 1969. Half-Irish, Rowland explained, 'I wanted a picture of unrest. It could have been from anywhere but I was secretly glad that it was from Ireland'.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

2-Tone's other bands: The Beat, Madness and The Selecter

heOn songs like "Hands Off, She's Mine" (The Beat's second Top 10 hit from early 1980), the bubbling bass braid itself around the rimshot drums and the shimmering rhythm guitar.

The Beat - Hands Off, She's Mine 1980

"Mirror in the Bathroom", their third single and a number 4 hit in May 1980, was even more innovative. Weirdly, its jittery guitars and sinous bass recall nothing so much as Joy Division's "Transmission", although maybe "She's Lost Control" is more apt, because "Mirror" is a glimpse in the mind of someone cracking up.

The Beat - Mirror in the Bathroom 1980

Tension, paranoia and jangled nervousness were The Beat's prime terrain, as heard on songs like "Twist and Crawl", "All out to Get You", and their third Top 10 hit of 1980, "Too Nice to Talk to" - the frantic sound of a guy paralised and tongue-tied whenever the girl of his dreams comes near. "Too Nice" added Chic-style bass and African-flavoured guitar to the speed skank, resulting in an iridescent chittering sound that suggested township disco.

The Beat - Twist and Crawl 1980

The Beat - All out to Get You 1981

The Beat - Too Nice to Talk to 1980

Behind the clowning of Madness, was an intelligence and melancholy that gradually came to the fore. Alongside early jolly-ups like "One Step Beyond" and "Night Boat to Cairo" were singles like the exquisitely rueful and confused "My Girl" (a young man who can't seem to make his girlfriend happy or get her to understand that he sometimes needs a bit of space) or the hangdog "Embarassment" (a boy who's disgraced his family).

Madness - One Step Beyond 1979

Madness - Night Boat to Cairo 1979

Madness - My Girl 1979

Madness - Embarassment 1980

The video for "Baggy Trousers" was uproarious but the song's nostalgia for schooldays came alloyed with ambivalence and regret.

Madness - Baggy Trousers 1980

By their third album, 7, Madness's humour was shadowed with the pathos and bathos of English life. 

"Cardiac Arrest" was a deceptively jaunty ditty about a stressed middle manager who's late for work and suffers a coronary in mid-commute.

Madness - Cardiac Arrest 1981

"Grey Day" was as harrowing as anything on The Specials, and this time the music itself took a turn to the tragi-comic, with bells tolling for all those condemned to a living death of meaningless routine. 'The sky outside is wet and grey/So begins another weary day', singer Suggs McPherson intones mournfully, 'I wish I could sink without a trace'. Amazingly, this portrait of terminal despondency, underpinned by an ominous dubsway of reggae rimshots and heavy bass, reached number 4 in the charts in the spring of 1981.

Madness - Grey Day 1981

The Selecter hit big with the herky-jerky "On My Radio" (a protest against the airwaves being one long 'same old show') but never quite won the public's affection - despite having a charismatic singer, Pauline Black - one of the few women in the 2-Tone stable.

The Selecter - On My Radio 1979

Madness's number 1 hit "House of Fun" - a song about going to buy your first packet of condoms at the chemist's - made sexual awakening seem like a fall from grace into a world of sordid grotesquerie.

Madness - House of Fun 1982

With the exception of Madness, who hid their sadness behing a light-hearted exterior, what's immediately striking when you look at the key figures of 2-Tone and the whole mod renaissance is the sexless intensity of their zeal, a polarized vision ardour that divides the world into the righteous and the square. The Jam's Paul Weller captures the attitude best in "Start!" when he rejoices at meeting a soul-brother who, just like himself, 'loves with a passion called hate'.

The Jam - Start! 1980

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Specials, Madness and the beginning of the ska revival

Just as "Death Disco" started sliding down the UK charts in July 1979, another single shot in like a rocket: "Gangsters". The Specials' debut shares a surprising amount with PiL's single: a bassline that pounds against your ribcage like a heart full of fear, baleful vocals (singer Terry Hall modelled his glowering persona on Johnny Rotten), and a sinuous, snake-charmer melody that's almost like a cartoon version of Lydon's muezzin wail. 'Cartoon' is the key word, though. For all the lyrics' conjuring of menace and corruption ('we're living in real gangster times'), the Specials' manic exuberance made "Gangsters" pure pop.

The Specials - Gangsters 1979

Where Metal Box's featureless packaging refused image, The Specials' selftitled debut album revelled in it - the cover shows the seven members of the band looking super cool in pork-pie hats, thin ties and sharp sixties suits. PiL's matt-grey canister was starkly functional, a pointed exercise in demystification. But The Specials' black-and-white sleeve harked back to an older glamour: the monochrome period feel of the early sixties.

Despite The Specials' outward appearance of boisterous fun, their songs' worldview is strikingly cheerless. In "Nite Klub", the wage slaves piss away their pay packets with beer that already tastes like piss.

The Specials - Nite Klub 1979

"Too Much Too Young" starts as a taunting diatribe against an ex-girlfriend who's lost her youth to premature motherhood ('Try wearing a cap', jeers Hall), then turns rueful and almost compassionate for the lives they've both lost: 'You done too much, much too young/Now you're married with a son when you should be having fun with me'.

The Specials - Too Much Too Young 1979

"Stupid Marriage" is a marginally more jaunty take on the same scenario: Hall as the jilted boyfriend spying on his ex and her husband, then lobbing a brick through the bedroom window. This grim vision of matrimony as death trap - 'She's got him where she wanted and forgot to take her pill/And he thinks that she'll be happy when she's hanging out the nappies/If that's a happy marriage I'd prefer to be unhappy' - recalls The Who's "A Legal Matter" and kitchen-sink dramas like Up the Junction.

The Specials - Stupid Marriage 1979

The Who - A Legal Matter 1965

The song "Concrete Jungle", like PiL's "Chant" and Fatal Microbes' "Violence Grows", takes a snapshot of street life in 1979: a record year for racial attacks and muggings. Embellished with sound effects of breaking glass, "Concrete Jungle" is driven by a disco-style walking bassline that periodically accelerates to a panicked sprint, the protagonist gibbering, 'Animals are after me' and, 'Leave me alone, leave me alone'.

The Specials - Concrete Jungle 1979

Singer/producer Prince Buster was even bigger in Britain than he was in Jamaica: he released more than six hundred singles in the UK between 1962 and 1967, and toured frequenly, often escorted between gigs by a phalanx of scooter-riding mods. The Special upheld the mod tradition of worshipping Buster. "Gangsters" was loosely based on his "Al Capone", replacing the original lyrics with all-new words about the record business's sharks and shysters, but 'sampling' the skidding car-chase tyres from the original.

Prince Buster - Al Capone 1967

"Stupid Marriage" stole its courtroom scenario - The Specials' resident rude boy Neville Staple as Judge Roughneck meting out harsh sentences to rude boys - from Buster's "Judge Dread" hit of 1967.

Prince Buster - Judge Dread 1967

"Message to You Rudy", the Dandy Livingstone classic covered by The Specials, wasn't written from a 'conscious' standpoint, but it did counsel the rude boy to mend his ways: 'better think of your future'.

The Specials - A Message to You, Rudy 1979

Dandy Livingstone - Rudy A Message to You 1967

Madness outdid all the other ska revivalists with their debut single - their sole release for 2-Tone Records. On one side, a version of Buster's "Madness" made for an instant manifesto.

Prince Buster - Madness 1967

On the other, "The Prince" paid luminous tribute. 'A ghost dance is preparing', announces singer Suggs McPherson, a nod to "Ghost Dance", Buster's own homage to the sound system operators of his youth. "This may not be uptown Jamaica", sings Suggs, conceding that, 'although I'll keep on running, I'll never get to Orange Street' - a reference to the boulevard that was both Buster's birthplace and the centre of Kingston's music biz. "The Prince" sounds joyous, but its lyrics capture the poignant pathos of the mod dream - escaping the impasses of England through a massive projection towards black music and black style.

Madness - The Prince 1979

Prince Buster - Ghost Dance 1967