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