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