Friday, 26 September 2008

The Listening Post 3 - Back to the '80s

British newspapers like to give Stuff away. Any old Stuff. Good for the circulation. Anything goes - books, DVDs, CDs...if it's likely to drag in a few more punters then they'll make it available for you (and/or me!) to snip out a voucher and make sure we trot down to our local Smith's or Tesco to collect the latest freebie, whether we want it or not. But to be fair, sometimes the pickings are rich indeed and actually worth having. The Daily Mail, in particular, is very keen on hooking its readers with 'collections' and my cupboards are full of half-collected war film DVDs, episodes of 'classic' BBC costume dramas and, I've just noticed, a complete collection of How to Speak French CDs. Mais oui! The Mail has also caused a bit of a stir in the music industry recently by giving away really good Stuff - brand new CDs from popular artists either before they hit the shops and sometimes even instead of. Prince, McFly, Ray Davies (a particularly good one last year) have all premiered their new recordings via slipcase giveaways in the Daily Mail.

But, as a child of the 1980s (well, not exactly a child but the 1980s is the decade I'm most fond of as it coinciding with the growth of the new-fangled CD industry, my 'career' as a mobile DJ (or rather, an immobile DJ as I tend to be based in the same place every week!) and the simple fact that a lot of the music was very good indeed. Imagine my excitement - feel it! - as the Mail announced a giveaway series of 12 original 1980s CDs, many of which I'd never actually gotten around to collecting on CD (and one or two of which, I'll admit, I'd never really wanted). So I got the lot. And I listened to 'em in the car. And they took me back to more innocent days o0f fiddly synths and boys in sweaters, unfeasible mullets and the early days of androgynous boy/girl singers. And I thought I'd write about them...

First out of the blocks came Spandau Ballet's white boy soul classic True. This was Spandau Ballet's career-saving third album, from 1983, released on the wake of their less-than-stellar second LP Paint Me Down, a clattering collection of dance anthems which just didn't chime with the Nerw Romantic audience of their first album. True saw the boys donning natty suits, thin ties and teaming up with slick producers Jolley and Swain. The resulting album was an international smash but even at the time it seemed a bit bland and lifeless, the group going through the motions and becoming respectable for the sake of their long-term future. There's some forgettable stuff here but the good stuff's as strong as ever it was - Communication rocks, Lifeline is slick, True is the ultimate 'last dance' smoocheroe and Gold remains a TV sports show's wet dream. True did the band no real favours - they tried to repeat the formula with the anodyne Parade the next year but it was all downhill from hereon.

The Human League's Dare remains one of the most influential albums of the 1980s, marrying hypnotic electronic beats with - gasp - good pop tunes! It sounds a bit primitive by today's standards but the combination of Phil Oakey's cold vocals and the burbling synth beats still packs a punch and how can anyone not love an album which contains not only the pop classic Don't You Want me but also Love Action, Open Your Heart, Sound of the Crowd and great stuff like Do or Die and The Things That Dreams Are Made Of. The League were scuppered by a work ethic which pitted perfectionism against laziness (with disastrous consequences!) but Dare is still a great pop album. Spin-off group Heaven 17 followed up Penthouse and Pavement with the more sophisticated - but less likable - The Luxury Gap. It's a meandering album but there's some good pop here - Crushed by the Wheels of Industry, Who'll Stop the Rain, We Live So Fast as well as Temptation and Come Live With Me. Of its time but still worth a listen.

If there was a title for twee-est pop band of all time (and there should be - see to it, someone!) Haircut 100 would win it in perpetuity. Their debut album Pelican West is all chunky sweaters and hopelessly-cloying song titles - Lemon Firebrigade, Milk Film, Baked Bean - but, with Nick Heyward fronting, they could still kick up a funky lick (man). As well as the hits Love Plus One and Favourite Shirts there's Calling Captain Autumn (see what I mean about twee?) and Love's Got Me In Triangles (even though it references Toblerones)which feature mean bass-playing and remain endlessly catchy. Haircut 100, in retrospect, were always going to be a short-term propositon and Hayward was probably right to bale out during the recording of their second album - it's just a shame his promising solo career fizzled out so soon.

I've never been a fan of Jim Steinman's particular brand of bombast. Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell left me colder than very cold thing - and so it is with the Steinman-produced Faster Than the Speed of Light for gravel-voiced Welsh chanteuse and purveyor of big hair, Bonnie Tyler. This is painful stuff indeed, from the booming hit Total Eclipse of the Heart to pompous stuff like Take me Back and Have You Ever Seen the Rain? It's a Jungle Out There's okay though. Not for me.

I entered a fancy dress party as Adam Ant's Prince Charming once. There were two of us; I had the better costume but in the end it all boiled down to which of us could do the best Prince Charming dance (you may remember it, all arms in the air and odd foot movements). Damn my two left feet; I came second. I'm not bitter. Adam's Prince Charming album is still good fun. Blousy and theatrical it rattles from the rampant Scorpios, That Voodoo, S.E.X (oo-er!) and the shouty, raucous Ant Rap. Bold and exciting, it actually still sounds ahead of its time and it's quite a revelation.

In a similar vein to Spandau Ballet we find Paul Young's No Parlez, a strong but uninvolving collection of juddery 1980s pop led by Young's raspy vocals and the silver tongues of his backing group The Royal Family (featuring one Kim Cattrell amongst their number, fact fans!). The hits are, inevitably, the best, from the yearning Every Time You Go Away to the pulsing Come Back and Stay and Love of the Common People.

Listening to Terence Trent D'Arby's powerful debut Introducing the Hardline it's hard not to weep for a talent which should have gone on to huge international stardom. Here was our best shot at a homegrown Prince and this strong album feeatured a string of clever, inventive, hugely-memorable soul/funk tracks right up there with the best of the Minneapolis Purple Pain. The hit singles speak for themselves - If You Let Me Stay, Wishing Well, Sign Your Name - but Let's Go Forward is still in my brain now two weeks since I last heard it and I'll Never Turn My Back On You and Rain are other stand-outs. What a waste.

Riding the crest of the New Romantics of the early 1980s came Culture Club, here represented by the second album
Colour By Numbers. The album saw the band at their peak, with the irritating Karma Chameleon lodged at number one for six weeks in the summer of 1983. Colour By Numbers is a bit dull though with only It's A Miracle and Church of the Poison Mind making much of an impact.

So to Marillions's Misplaced Childhood- and I've never been much of a fan of Fish and his band's particular brand of sub-Genesis prog rock. This is the album where they went 'pop' though, with their hits Kayleigh and Lavender and the rest of it rather passed me by. Similarly Dexy's Midnight Runners' Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, an earnest and brass-heavy set of slightly under-produced 'soul' anthems recorded by angry young men for angry young men. Difficult to listen to these days because it's so of it's time but obviously Geno and There There My Dear, the two hits, are the ones to listen out for.

Finally to Simple Minds with Once Upon A Time. Their 1982 album New Gold Dream remains one of my favourite albums of all time - and I'm looking forward to seeing them live in December performing the whole album and, I'm sure, other tracks from their repertoire. This LP hails from 1985, just after their huge international hit Don't You (Forget About Me), the slick pop song which changed their style of music forever. This is Simple Minds-as-stadium-band and it's really not up to much. It's bland and lifeless, devoid of their characteristic passion; every song leaps out in a sea of over-production and seems to go on forever. It's not a bad album and there are a couple of tracks worth your time but it's a shame Simple Minds lost their creative edge in their quest for the Big Time.

So there ya go. Capsule comments on a handful of albums which, if not totally representative of the 1980s, give a pretty fair spread of the styles and trends of the decade. If you missed any of the Mail's freebies most (if not all) of these CDs are available for around the £3 mark from most online CD retailers and some of them are well worth a punt if you've an interest in music from the time before the rap and r'n'b explosion which has so stifled the modern music industry. But that's a whole other kettle of CDs...

See ya soon!! :)

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